SHAMOKIN - Leo J. Mirolli Jr. calls reimbursements for AREA Services' transport of bodies for the Northumberland County coroner's office a case of "political friendship" between incumbent Coroner James F. Kelley and Bernie Rumberger, owner of AREA.

Mirolli, the Republican candidate for coroner, said AREA is the only ambulance service that has been paid for transports since 2000.

He raised the issue at Wednesday's Brush Valley Regional Chamber of Commerce meet-the-candidates luncheon.

He did not name AREA Wednesday, but during a campaign interview earlier this month at The News-Item, he said AREA is the ambulance company in question.

Kelley, a Democrat seeking re-election to a fourth four-year term, denies the payments are anything but normal coroner business. Rumberger could not be reached Wednesday for comment.

Mirolli posed the questions before Kelley, who was 20 minutes late for the luncheon because he was helping a family make funeral arrangements, arrived. Kelley didn't hear Mirolli make his comments, but was given the opportunity to respond.

AREA, based in Shamokin, bills itself as the largest ambulance service provider in the county. Its website says the company has a fleet of 10 ambulances and four vans and responds to more than 14,500 requests for service annually.

$7,500 since 2000

Mirolli asked county Controller Tony Phillips to research how much had been paid to AREA from the coroner's office from 2000 to 2012. Kelley has served since 2002.

Mirolli provided a copy of an Oct. 3 memorandum from Phillips that showed a breakdown by year that totals $7,500. It ranged from a low of $150 in 2004 to a high of $750 each in 2000 and 2001 - except for 2012, when it jumped to $2,250. And, Mirolli said, so far in 2013, it is zero.

Mirolli questions why the number increased so much in 2012. He claims no money has been paid this year because Kelley knew he would have an opponent in the coroner election and didn't want any fresh documentation about the payments.

Kelley said that's not the case. Asked by The News-Item in an Oct. 10 interview, one day after Mirolli raised the issue, Kelley said he was late in submitting bills to the county, but had just mailed invoices for the body transports a few days earlier.

Northumberland County Budget Director Jeff McClintock confirmed Wednesday he received three bills around Oct. 8 from the coroner's office totaling $900 for services provided by AREA in April, May and August of this year.

Why no one else?

Mirolli asked why no other ambulance companies were paid to transport bodies for the coroner's office.

Kelley said ambulance companies are paid $150 per transport if they submit a bill. He said no other ambulance companies show up in county records because either the companies didn't submit bills or he disputed the billing.

He said there were two instances when another ambulance service, William Cameron, transported bodies, but billed the county $800 for a basic life support (BLS) call. Because the coroner's office didn't request BLS, Kelley said, he refused to submit the bill to the county and would only do so when the company sent a bill for $150.

He said ambulances sometimes transport the deceased because the body is already in the ambulance when the person is pronounced dead. The companies also transport or at least help at the scene if a person is large, Kelley noted. He said he does appreciate the help and is happy to pay for it.

"Other (ambulance companies) have been used, definitely," he said.

Kelley didn't dispute the large jump from 2011 to 2012, but said it simply means more bodies were transported. The $2,250 bill is the price of 15 transports.

"There's no doubt there's an increase," he said.

Phillips said Mirolli asked for records specifically involving AREA. The controller said, to the best of his knowledge, only AREA showed up under the line item for transport of bodies. He said other bills may have been submitted, but there's no way of knowing if those charges are for body transports unless they are coded as such.

"Why is it just AREA Services?" Mirolli asked in an earlier interview. "I know there are a lot of (Kelley) signs in (Rumberger's) yard," he said.

Kelley denies political favoritism.

'Enjoys the money'

At Wednesday luncheon, Mirolli refered to an Oct. 20 article in The News Item when Kelley said he "truly, truly" enjoys his job despite the difficult nature of the work and a recent pay cut enacted by the commissioners. However, Mirolli said Kelley must "truly, truly enjoy the money" because he is one of four row officers suing the county and commissioners over the pay cuts.

Kelley said he can't comment on the lawsuit, but said his quote is true: "I love my job," he said.

Stellfox reference

Mirolli also accused Kelley of lying when the coroner told the newspaper his office has helped the district attorney achieve a 100 percent conviction rate for county homicides. Mirolli said Jean Stellfox is probably "rolling in her grave" over that comment.

Kelley disputed Mirolli's accusation and said Stellfox, who was struck by a vehicle in Mount Carmel 10 years ago, died the next day at Geisinger Medical Center, which is in Montour County and not his case, Kelley said.

No arrest has been made in Stellfox's death, but Mount Carmel police plan to hold a press conference Friday to update the public on the ongoing investigation.