With its contracts related to the removal and burial of deceased persons expiring soon, the Harrison County Commissioners Court approved the purchasing agent, on Wednesday, to seek proposals from funeral homes for removal and transport of the deceased as well as for direct cremation for the county’s deceased paupers.

The item was approved following a closed session in which the current county contractor, Meadowbrook Funeral Home, commented on the topic, making their interest for renewing their contract known.

“I didn’t realize that it was going to be put out for bid again; and we did send over the same paperwork that we’ve sent every year and requested to be considered again,” said Melinda Gaulden, who co-owns Meadowbrook with her husband, Richard.

“The community has been very, very good to support our funeral home and Richard and I are newcomers,” she added. “We’ve only been here 10 years, but we appreciate that and we appreciate the fact that we’ve had the contract for this many years and we don’t want to lose it.”

Meadowbrook has had the county’s contract for removal and transport since 2013 and the indigent burial services contract since 2015, providing cremation services for deceased paupers. The contract, which is set to expire Dec. 14, called for one-year and was extendable for three additional one-year periods. The removal and transport contract is set to expire Nov. 14.

“We have not had an increase in our charges,” Gaulden pointed out. “We don’t anticipate any increase in the bid.”

Meadowbrook’s total charge for indigent cremation has always been $600, which includes the pick-up of the deceased pauper; cremation for remains of the deceased and the container for the remains. Free storage including but not limited to refrigeration for remains of the deceased is also included. The $600 also included the required permits, authorization forms that have to be processed and one certified copy of the death certificate.

DISCUSSION

Offering discussion on the matter, Pct. 2 Commissioner Zephaniah Timmins inquired if they had to solicit bids since Meadowbrook has always been the most interested and intends on keeping their charges the same.

“I mean I can tell you firsthand, right now, I asked several funeral homes about this, especially the indigent burials and things like that,” Timmins informed, “and we only had one funeral home that wanted to deal with it and we have them here; so is it (necessary)?”

Harrison County Judge Chad Sims said he thinks it’s best to continue the bidding process to give all potentially interested parties an opportunity.

“I know there’s interest in other funeral homes to bid on this,” said Sims. “I think it’s in the best interest of the county to always bid it out. I don’t want us to look like we’re (giving) business to somebody without going through the bid process.

“I think that’s necessary for the court to think about,” he said.

Pct. 1 County Commissioner William Hatfield said he appreciates Meadowbrook’s partnership and agrees that the bidding process is fair.

“We’re always looking for partners — people that want to work with the county — and Meadowbrook Funeral Home is a true partner,” said Hatfield. “They are true partners, not just on this pickup but also on the indigent cremations and what they do.

“That has saved us thousands of dollars on that, but we’ll do what we have to do,” he continued. “We’re all about transparency so let’s do what we need to do.”

PUBLIC COMMENT

Giving her public comment prior to the court’s approval to seek bids, Gaulden, representing Meadowbrook noted some things for the county’s consideration when it comes to details of the contracts and service provided.

She explained that the indigent cremation contract comes into play when an indigent client of the county dies and the family can’t afford a proper burial or cremation.

“There’s an application process; it’s not a guarantee, but there’s an application process and the families have to provide certain documentation to prove that the deceased does not have the funds to take care of their final disposition,” said Gaulden. “It’s not based on the family’s ability to pay; it’s based on the deceased’s ability to pay and it calls for readily available assets. Readily available assets are cash in the bank, basically, because most funeral homes need payment in full, especially before cremation takes place.”

She pointed out the cost savings the funeral home provides.

“Our cremation, I believe, at one time it has been the lowest of any in Harrison County and that’s at $1,920,” said Gaulden. “The county pays $600 and we agree to do it for that.”

Further, Gaulden noted that the business gives other breaks, charging only $100 for the county removal service and one dollar per mile in order to transport the deceased from the place of death to Tyler, for autopsy.

“Sometimes depending on the circumstances, if it’s a homicide then the body goes on to Dallas for a more extensive autopsy. The rate is $1 per mile. The contract says our agreement was $1 per mile to and from pathology and to and from to bring the body back. We have never charged that,” she pointed out. “We charge from the place of the death in Harrison County to the medical examiner’s office at a dollar a mile. Our average contract runs about $150 to $170 per mile.”

If it’s a multiple accident with two deceased people to transport, the service is still one charge, she indicated.

“So we try to be a good steward of county money and to take care of things,” said Gaulden.

The funeral home director said time is critical for them to bring the deceased into their care and transport them.

“We always send two people and if it’s a larger person, we send four because our point is to get in and get out, especially if it’s an accident or homicide before the public or families start showing up,” she said. “So whether we have two people on every call, which we do or if we have four … we don’t charge per person, our contract says $100 per call; so our costs in just two staff and a body bag is about $140. That doesn’t take into consideration mileage, wear and tear on vehicles or gas.”

She said they provide such services as a way of not only having the opportunity to possibly service the family, but also as a way of giving back to the community.

Gaulden said when it comes to the indigent cremation contract that has no family contact she strives to go above and beyond to find a loved one for permission.

“I just had to have Judge Sims sign a cremation authorization for a gentleman we’ve had in our care for over 30 days because there’s no family contact. I spent 92 hours trying to find that man’s family because I didn’t want to have to have Judge Sims sign the contract and the authorization, because cremation is you’re either for it or against it. And so I didn’t want eventually the family to come back to us and say they didn’t want cremation,” she said. “I wanted to do due diligence to find (the family); and really and truly, that’s not my job. That’s not another funeral home’s job. It’s the county’s job to find a family when it’s an indigent case.

“We supply everything that we can and all the information that we have, but we are not required by that contract to spend 92 hours trying to find a family and it’s not the first one we’ve had. We had one for 60 days and just because it’s a challenge to me to find that family and because I would want my family to know…there’s a lot of extra things that we do,” she said. “And I’m not saying for one minute that another funeral home would not do that. I can’t speak on that. They might.”

Gaulden noted that a funeral home must also have the right people in place to handle such unpredictable situations.

“We are required to be on location when we get dispatched from the sheriff or the Marshall Police Department. Our contract says 45 minutes. We have 45 minutes in the middle of the night to get people up … dressed to the funeral home and get everything together that we need. And we don’t always know what we need,” she said. “We don’t know if the person is in a tiny camper and weighs 600 pounds or if they’re upstairs in a building with a narrow staircase coming down. We don’t know if they’re in a car wreck and they’re still trapped inside that car. They use the Jaws of Life, but they don’t remove the bodies. That’s not their job. But we don’t always know what we’re getting into, and so then we’ve been in situations where we’ve had to call for backup. You have to be sure that you have the right people on those kinds of calls, because of what we see … train accidents, burn victims …

“You have to have the right staff to be able to make this contract work to the benefit of the county, to the benefit of the family and to the benefit of the funeral home,” said Gaulden.

“So there’s a lot of challenges that go along with that contract and we want it. We don’t want to lose it,” she said. “We’re willing to continue if we get that opportunity.”

She said it’s best to combine both contracts to make it easier for all.

“I think that’s a consideration to make. (If) you’re going to put out for bid then put both contracts out for bid at the same time and try to keep them through the same funeral home because it makes the workload a little easier for the funeral home and it makes it a lot easier for the county and our payment,” she suggested.

In discussion among fellow court members, Pct. 4 Commissioner Jay Ebarb said he thinks it’ll be a wise move to combine both contracts. The county’s attorney, Bob Cole, gave it the OK.

Judge Sims made the motion to authorize the purchasing agent to advertise the request for proposals and Timmins seconded the motion, which was unanimously approved.

The RFP was published by the county purchasing agent Kendl Russell on Friday, informing that bids must be in the hands the Harrison County purchasing agent, 200 W. Houston St., first floor, Room 107 on or before 2 p.m. Nov. 5.