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Erik Burgess, Published September 25 2013

Cass commissioners balk on putting morgue in proposed Fargo Public Health building

FARGO – At least two Cass County commissioners aren’t ready to approve putting the county’s morgue in a proposed Fargo Public Health building.

City and county leaders met on Wednesday to discuss having a county coroner’s office in the former Sunmart/CVS building at 13th Avenue South and 25th Street. The city is renovating the building into a new Fargo Cass Public Health office and police substation.

City Administrator Pat Zavoral said the 3,880-square-foot morgue portion of the building could be built for about $120 per square foot, for a total of $465,000. City leaders hope to start the $8.7 million renovation on the 58,000-square-foot building by early next year.

But after city officials left the room on Wednesday, Cass County Commissioner Chad Peterson expressed skepticism that the morgue’s price would be so low and said he wouldn’t agree to pay the city’s proposed architectural fees.

Still, the county’s morgue subcommittee voted unanimously on Wednesday to allow Fargo to include the morgue as an alternative in the city’s construction bid for the building.

It means that when the city seeks bids on the project in November, contractors will break out the cost of the morgue section, allowing the county to see the exact price. Peterson thinks that number will be closer to $200 a square foot.

“I hope I’m wrong,” said Peterson, who attended the meeting via telephone.

Dr. John Baird, the county coroner, does not have a morgue office for himself or his two death investigators. The number for the coroner’s office in the phone book is one of his investigator’s cell phones, which Baird called “inappropriate.”

Without an office, the morgue relies on funeral homes for body storage, which makes it difficult to do examinations or prepare bodies for tissue donation.

“We’re the largest county in the state, and we really need to provide good service to our citizens,” Baird said.

Baird said he and his investigators work closely with Fargo police, so being near the new substation would be an advantage. Deputy Police Chief Pat Claus also attended Wednesday’s meeting, and agreed with Baird.

Peterson and fellow Commissioner Mary Scherling said they aren’t ready to commit to the location if the price isn’t right. Scherling said there are also concerns about housing a county operation in a city-owned building.

County Auditor Michael Montplaisir said the sheriff is considering adding on to the jail, which could change options the county has for setting up a coroner’s office.

“I’m not ready to vote in favor of the project at all,” Scherling said. “I think we need to talk to the sheriff.”

County Administrator Keith Berndt said allowing the morgue to be an alternative on Fargo’s bid gives the county more time to think about its options. He also said it would be “petty” to not agree to pay the architectural fees.

“Honestly, I think Pat’s working with us here. The city’s working with us here,” Berndt said.

After the meeting, Zavoral said the county would likely pay 6 or 7 percent of the $465,000 construction cost, or $27,900 to $32,550.

To end the meeting, Peterson told Berndt to “negotiate like heck” with the city over the fees.

Zavoral said Fargo is ready to build, with or without the county.

“If they don’t go in there, I’m sure we’ll find other uses for the space,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518