"He has chosen to take his disagreement public, which is unlikely to improve his position," Commissioners Chairman Colin A. Hanna said.
The public nature of the dispute was unusual because, with the exception of Democratic Commissioner Andrew E. Dinniman, all the players are elected Republicans.
The autopsy issue came up after Rothenberger requested the Nextel phones, which can be used as walkie-talkies, for his department, Commissioner Karen L. Martynick said.
Among the papers Rothenberger submitted to justify the purchase was a 2002 coroner survey that included figures indicating the county's autopsy rate was substantially higher than in comparable counties. That document raised more concerns for the commissioners.
The survey said Chester County investigated 1,467 deaths in 2002, resulting in 331 autopsies. Montgomery County's 4,003 deaths produced 110 autopsies.
"Why would Chester County have twice as many autopsies as Montgomery County when Montco has a higher population?" Martynick asked.
Dinniman said the number of autopsies raised concerns about cost, as well as compassion.
"Autopsies are expensive and should only be used as a last resort," Dinniman said. "And more importantly, you have to remember that you're dealing with someone's loved one."
Rothenberger, who also is regional vice president of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Coroners' Association, said that Chester County's numbers are not out of line and that his office follows strict state guidelines for when autopsies are warranted.
All three commissioners said they remain concerned about the numbers.
Rothenberger believes they should be concerned about the county's readiness to handle mass casualties.
While the U.S. government is instructing him to have "Code Red preparedness," Rothenberger said the commissioners are telling him that they will not approve phone service that proved invaluable to emergency agencies on Sept. 11.
Nextel phones are essential, Rothenberger said, because cell phones have proven unreliable during major emergencies, often responding with "system busy" during periods of high use.
Martynick said the deputy coroners had received cell phones; Rothenberger said his employees had only pagers, which didn't work well.
He said he felt so strongly about having the equipment that after the commissioners didn't respond to his requests, he ordered it himself.
"He came to us in a panic after the second month of bills that the controller wouldn't pay," Martynick said. "Now he's mad that he's out $1,400."
Martynick said the commissioners reminded Rothenberger that county contracts have to be put out to bid, but they agreed to pay the difference between Cingular cellular and Nextel service - about $200 a month, Rothenberger said.
The coroner said he has received no reimbursement. He said his deputies have agreed to pay their individual bills from now on because "they are committed to doing their job better."
In the meantime, the commissioners said they would continue to review Rothenberger's request, especially because other county departments have expressed interest in Nextel phones.
"A lot of people would like to have Nextel because it's fun," Martynick said. "I'm yet to be convinced that deputy coroners need to talk to each other during an emergency, but if they do, we need to follow the proper procedures.
Contact staff writer Kathleen Brady Shea at 610-701-7625 or firstname.lastname@example.org.