BOC kills funeral home’s contract

— A local funeral home’s county contract is DOA.

Morrow-based Harris Ward & Webb Ellison Funeral Home, LLC has held a contract since 2004 to remove dead bodies from crime scenes for the county.

However, the Clayton County Board of Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to terminate the contract after it received numerous complaints from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation about the funeral home’s job performance.

Among the GBI’s complaints are issues with slow response times.

“The central issue was basically them not showing up in a timely manner and there were several times where they were not able to show up at all,” said Commission Chairman Jeff Turner.

The GBI’s complaints, as outlined in a commission resolution, show a pattern of undesirable service.

In addition to the slow response times, Harris Ward representatives allegedly risked contamination of crime scenes by arriving at the scene during an active investigation — despite being warned by GBI officials to not do so.

A representative of the funeral home is also accused of arriving to retrieve a dead body from one crime scene while a child was present.

“We need to employ a funeral home that can fulfill the obligations of its contract,” Turner said.

Nellie Ward, the funeral home’s director, admitted to commissioners this week that Harris Ward has not always provided the best service to the county.

“Have we had issues? Yes, we have,” said Ward. “There has been times when the car did not operate. We’ve had to call in a duplicate or call somebody back in to cover. There was a time that I was responding and took ill. I couldn’t go any further ...

“So, there have been times where we have not been able to respond — not trying to make excuses — but it seems all of them are legit and there was a reason why we were not able to.”

Turner, who is a former Clayton County police chief, said long wait times can have a downhill effect that impacts neighborhood patrolling efforts designed to reduce crime in the county.

The longer Clayton County police have to stay at a crime scene to wait for the funeral home to arrive, the less time those officers have to do other police work.

“We can’t just leave the body at the crime scene,” Turner said. “Taking officers off the streets to wait for a body to be picked up reduces efforts to fight crime.”

Ward said she realized soon after the initial contract was signed that her funeral home could not meet the 30 minutes or less requirement because they were not authorized to drive at high speeds on Clayton County roads. She said a deal was worked out with former Commission Chairman Eldrin Bell and former County Attorney Michael Smith to change the requirement to “30 minutes, or within a reasonable time.”

But, the language reverted back to “30 minutes or less” in a contract extension signed last year, said Ward.

“So, this last contract that we currently have, I failed — due to my assuming that the wording was correct — to not read the whole thing through to know it had gone back,” she said. “Based on that, GBI feels like we are not responding properly.

“The only defense that I can give is that we’re not certified [to drive at high speeds] and if we can’t have the proper warning devices and lightings in place, I feel that that’s unsafe and I know that it would be illegal for us to do that.”