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Erik Burgess, Published October 21 2013

Cass death investigators awarded full-time status

FARGO – County commissioners Monday took what the county coroner called a “slow step” toward fixing Cass County’s morgue problem.

Commissioners voted unanimously to make the county’s two death investigators county employees with benefits starting Nov. 1. They also voted to give the death investigators, who investigate unattended deaths, office space in the district courthouse and a used county vehicle.

Death investigators have been contracted employees without benefits, working from home and using their own vehicles when called to death scenes.

But the county still does not have a morgue facility, so death investigators will continue to rely on local funeral homes to store oft-decomposing bodies while police conduct criminal investigations and death investigators seek out the deceased’s next-of-kin.

Commissioner Chad Peterson said Monday’s actions were a necessary “baby step” toward improving the working conditions of the county coroner.

County commissioners are awaiting the renovation bid for the former Fargo Sunmart/CVS building at 25th Street and 13th Avenue South, which Fargo is converting into a public health office and police substation. It could include a 3,880-square-foot morgue that the county would rent from the city.

But commissioners have balked at the $600,000 price tag Fargo officials have given as an estimate, saying the county isn’t prepared to budget for such an expense.

Commissioner Ken Pawluk said Monday that he wants county officials to continue conversations with local funeral homes, which don’t just provide body storage. The coroner’s office also pays funeral homes $225 per trip to take bodies to a medical examiner in Grand Forks for autopsies.

“The county needs today and previously have been very well served by the local funeral homes,” he said. “And I’m reluctant to take that business away from them if they want to continue to provide it.”

But Dr. John Baird, who has served as county coroner since 1983, said the county is asking too much of the local funeral homes.

“My input from the funeral homes is that they’re in the funeral home business,” he said after Monday’s meeting. “They’re not in the business of storing bodies, transporting bodies, that sort of thing.”

In making the motion to grant office space in the courthouse to the death investigators, Pawluk called it the “interim coroner’s office.”

Baird called the commission’s actions a “slow step” to what needs to happen, but he said he is “not quite as confident” that commissioners will take the next step and build a morgue.

“It is a big need, and I think we’re asking a lot of the funeral homes to take on those cases that are difficult for them,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518