SHAMOKIN - After 24 years of dealing with death and grieving families, and now facing a 43 percent reduction in pay, it begs the question for James F. Kelley: Why do you still want to be coroner?

The answer, he says, is simple.

"I truly, truly do enjoy the job," Kelley answered during a recent interview

with The News-Item. "It's

extremely difficult for people to understand how you could enjoy being a coroner. It's not from the death aspect; it's from the other side. You're meeting with the family; you're trying to get them answers."

The 53-year-old Democrat from Coal Township has served as coroner since 2002, worked as a deputy coroner for 12 years before that, and has been a licensed funeral director since 1985.

Kelley believes experience is the biggest factor in his re-election bid.

"It's crucial to have that experience," he said.

Full-time work

Due to the on-call nature of his position, Kelley said it's difficult to calculate how many hours he works. He doesn't track his time, but estimates he spends a minimum of 30 hours per week in the coroner's post, and many weeks it's more.

Kelley said he, chief deputy James R. Gotlob of Sunbury and deputy Barry J. Leisenring of the Winfield area respond to 400 to 500 calls per year, including 250 to 300 death investigations. Kelley said he and his staff also assist at 20 to 30 autopsies annually.

Kelley said the office requires at least two deputies. While more staff would be nice, Kelley said that since he was first elected, the coroner's office has one less deputy and no longer employs a secretary. Also, the coroner and deputies no longer use county cell phones and don't attend as many conferences seminars to save money, he said.

Gotlob, who is full time, receives a salary of $14,762 plus annual medical benefits valued at $13,653. Leisenring, who is considered part time, earns $9,305 plus $523 in medical benefits and $900 for a partial insurance waiver.

Despite the part-time designation for Leisenring, Kelley said it's only "on paper" to help save the county money in regards to state regulations. He said paying benefits to deputy coroners is in line with the county's long-standing effort to compensate for lower pay compared to the private sector by offering better benefits.

Whether by actual hours or their on-call status, "They are full time; there's no doubt in my mind," Kelley said

He said he and the deputies deserve health care coverage for jobs in which they are exposed to dead bodies and the risk of AIDS, hepatitis and other diseases, and do a lot of heavy lifting.

Take-home hit

Kelley acknowledged he will take a large hit in bring-home pay with the decision by Commissioners Vinny Clausi and Stephen Bridy to reduce the coroner's office salary from $53,834 to $30,500 and increase his and other row officers' contributions to health care to 50 percent of the county's cost. In addition to the $23,334 reduction in pay, Kelley, who is on the family plan, will now pay $9,936 annually for health care instead of $2,892, an increase of $7,044.

Kelley, who also owns and operates Kelley Funeral Home, said the changes, which take effect Jan. 1, would not have deterred him from seeking re-election.

He rebuffed claims by Bridy and Clausi that row officers are "career politicians."

"To me, career politician is when you go into an office and then use that office as a stepping stone to higher office," he said. "If I was a career politician, I would have ran for state senator when they asked me, or state rep when they asked me, or county commissioner when they asked me."

More than response time

Coroners are summoned for homicides, suicides, motor-vehicle accidents and all suspicious or unusual deaths, but also for natural deaths when the deceased isn't under a doctor's care, Kelley said.

He said the time involved only starts with response to the scene. For a motor vehicle fatality, for example, the coroner or a deputy, or both, typically spends at least two hours and often four or more on-scene.

From there, the coroner or a deputy transports the body to the closest hospital, where he must disrobe the body and catalogue every possession, including jewelry and money. They must also draw blood, regardless of circumstance, and X-rays might be required. Hospital time is at least two hours, often more, Kelley said.

He requires that the deceased be identified by a member of his or her family, police or perhaps a minister, not simply by a driver's license photo.

The entire process can involve a lot of "sitting and waiting," Kelley said.

And an autopsy adds at least seven hours to a case, he said.

Beyond those duties, there are man hours put into paperwork and phone calls. He noted a Pennsylvania coroner must authorize every cremation in his or her county - no matter the circumstances. That typically requires no more than 30 minutes of work, but adds up as that practice gains in popularity. Also, PennDOT consults the office over traffic hazards related to motor vehicle accidents, and Kelley said he makes it a point to address youth on issues ranging from drug use to texting and driving.

He said state law requires a minimum of eight hours of continuing education each year.

Other duties

Kelley assisted the North Central Highway Safety Network with its implementation of "Survival 101," a teaching aid on the importance of seat belt usage used by police in local schools. He said he aided in passing Act 122, through which his office annually receives approximately $7,000 from the state through revenue generated by death certificate costs.

He remains proud of the enactment of "Safe Haven Day" on July 11, 2012, which recognizes the Safe Haven Act of 2002, also known as Newborn Protection "Baby Mary" Act.

Kelley said his participation in investigations with the district attorney's office, law enforcement and other agencies has helped result in a 100 percent conviction rate in county homicides investigated since he took office.

Kelley is married to the former Patricia A. Czech. They are the parents of three children, James P. II, his wife, Kristy, and daughters Elyse and Celia; and Mary Kate and Kieran J. He is a son of Joan L. (Milbrand) Kelley and the late James P. Kelley, and son-in-law of Patricia A. (Rodman) Czech and the late Walter J. Czech.