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Allegheny County could consider closing crime lab without help

| Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2014, 11:00 p.m.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Allegheny County Medical examiner Dr. Karl Williams, the county’s second-highest-paid employee at nearly $188,000 a year, recently listed forensic consulting services on a financial disclosure form noting county employee's outside work.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Dr. Karl Williams, left, Allegheny County Medical Examiner, listens as Rich Fitzgerald, Allegheny County Executive, speaks during the Joint Senate and House Democratic Policy Committee hearing on Allegheny County Crime Lab funding inside the Allegheny County Courthouse on Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2014.
Guy Wathen | Trib Total Media
Dr. Karl Williams, Allegheny County Medical Examiner, and Rich Fitzgerald, Allegheny County Executive, speak during the Joint Senate and House Democratic Policy Committee hearing on Allegheny County Crime Lab funding inside the Allegheny County Courthouse on Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2014.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
An autopsy table used for bodies in advanced stages of decomposition at the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office on Thursday, June 26, 2014.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said the future of the county's crime lab hinges on whether the state approves funding by year's end when council must pass a budget.

With no lab subsidies anticipated from the state, the county could close the crime lab, transfer operations to the state police or find other sources of income such as fees from municipalities that use the lab, Fitzgerald said on Tuesday at a Joint Senate & House Democratic Policy Committee hearing at the county courthouse. He is seeking $10 million from the state to run the crime lab and the county police investigative unit and balance the budget.

“We'd like it right now,” Fitzgerald said. “We need to get it funded, otherwise, we will turn it over to the state police and let them do all the testing.”

State Sen. Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, who called for the hearing, said the county will have to wait until next year's state budget, which wouldn't be considered until June 2015, to determine if state financial aid is available.

Costa said he doubts the county would shutter the crime lab in the meantime, but he said that is a decision County Council members will have to make. “It is a definite possibility if we cannot get state funding,” said Councilman Michael Finnerty, D-Scott, chair of the Budget & Finance Committee. “Our budget is pretty tight.”

Allegheny County and Philadelphia operate the only two crime labs in the state independent from the Pennsylvania State Police. State police operate six crime labs. The closest to Pittsburgh is in Greensburg.

Closing Allegheny County's lab would overburden the state police and add to backlogs, Stephie-Anna Ramaley, a county assistant district attorney, told the panel of 17 state senators and representatives at the hearing. The DA's office waits four to seven months for results from some drug tests from state labs. Accused criminals could be released from jail and cases could be dismissed if backlogs delayed trials past state-set deadlines, Ramaley said. Toxicology results from the county lab take four to six weeks, said Dr. Karl Williams, the county medical examiner.

State police officials were invited to the hearing but declined and did not return a call seeking comment

Charging fees to municipalities, including Pittsburgh, that use the lab “would be a considerable burden,” said Pittsburgh Director of Public Safety Stephen Bucar. Pittsburgh police submitted 76 percent of the nearly 9,000 pieces of evidence the lab received last year.

Police departments outside the county pay $90 for a blood-alcohol test and $200 for a drug screening test, said Amie Downs, county spokeswoman.

The county has spent $4.65 million a year to run the lab without state aid since 2011. The state contributed $500,000 in 2011; $1.1 million in 2009.

Fitzgerald has said securing state funding for the crime lab is one of his top two legislative priorities for 2014. The other is 911 funding reform.

Aaron Aupperlee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7986 or aaupperlee@tribweb.com.

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