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Erik Burgess, Published March 21 2014

Rejecting sheriff's plan, Cass County gives initial OK to morgue in city facility

FARGO – With the sheriff protesting, a Cass County subcommittee gave initial approval Friday to move forward with putting a county morgue in the city’s new public health office.

The Cass County Building Committee voted 3-1 to ask city officials to include a morgue in the new Fargo Cass Public Health office, which is being set up in the former Sunmart/CVS building at 25th Street and 13th Avenue South.

The city received bids for the project Thursday. The lowest bid was about $6.8 million. The roughly 3,800-square-foot coroner space would add about $400,000 to that cost.

While Sheriff Paul Laney said he’d prefer to see the morgue in his proposed jail expansion, County Commissioner Chad Peterson said that project is still hypothetical and at least two years away. The city health office, Peterson said, was the best and cheapest deal for a morgue the county could get right now.

“To be blunt, to me, this is the opportunity to do this,” Peterson said. “We get a formal, professional space ready to go within the next year.”

Finding space for a county morgue has been a contentious issue for months. The county doesn’t have a morgue and relies on local funeral homes to store bodies during sometimes lengthy death investigations.

The county’s two death investigators had also been working from home. They were granted office space in the county courthouse in October.

Laney was the sole “no” vote on the committee, saying putting the morgue in a county building – his proposed jail expansion – would better serve Cass County in 30 or 40 years.

“That’s a great offer. It’s a very generous offer,” Laney said of the Fargo project, “but I don’t know that we’re solving the long-term issue.”

County Commissioner Mary Scherling, who was at the meeting but does not sit on the building committee, also showed some hesitance in moving forward with the city project.

“I just feel like we’re being pushed into this without really looking at the long-term ramifications,” she said.

Peterson said he would attempt to gather a meeting of the full commission next week to vote on the project.

The $6.8 million cost of the public health office could increase, depending on if the city approves any alternate bids for the project, like a new roof or a repaired parking lot.

Laney also asked the building committee to consider seeking an architect for a feasibility study for a jail expansion, which would include a new juvenile detention center and more space for alternative sentencing programs.

The county uses space in the jail meant for adults to house juveniles, which just meets minimum standards and will only become more problematic as the county grows, Laney said.

The building committee unanimously approved seeking an architectural consultant to do a feasibility study. County Auditor Michael Montplaisir said the study could cost $40,000 to $50,000.

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