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Erik Burgess, Published March 21 2014

Cass subcommittee gives initial OK to put county morgue in new city facility

FARGO – With the sheriff protesting, a Cass County subcommittee gave initial approval Friday to put 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 $409,000 to that cost.

Sheriff Paul Laney said he’d prefer to see the morgue in his proposed jail expansion, which would include a new juvenile detention center and more space for alternative sentencing programs.

County Commissioner Chad Peterson said that project is still hypothetical and at least two years away. The committee just approved a feasibility study of the expansion Friday.

The city health office, Peterson said, is the best and cheapest deal for a morgue the county can get right now.

“To be blunt, to me, this is the opportunity to do this,” he 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 and using personal vehicles to respond to death scenes. They were given office space in the courthouse and a county vehicle in October.

County Commissioner Mary Scherling, who was at the meeting but does not sit on the building committee, showed some hesitance about putting the county’s morgue in a city facility.

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

Laney was the sole “no” vote on the committee. He said Fargo was making a “generous offer” but argued that putting the morgue in a county building – his proposed jail expansion – would better serve Cass County in 30 or 40 years.

“They belong to the county, and it’s our responsibility to oversee them, to develop them, to help them grow, and support them,” Laney said. “And it’s a lot harder to do that, sometimes, when they’re out of sight, out of mind.”

But County Auditor Michael Montplaisir said the coroner’s office has been under the county’s control for years, and yet the county has still been “delinquent” in assisting them.

“It was like pulling teeth to get a used vehicle with 145,000 miles for the coroner’s office,” he said. “The city came to us … because they saw a need that the county simply was not providing. I think we have an obligation to seriously consider it.”

County Coroner Dr. John Baird said he believed the proposed morgue space in the Fargo Cass Public Health building would be good for the long term.

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

The Fargo City Commission still has to award the bid for the project, which could happen at the next meeting, March 31, City Administrator Pat Zavoral said. City leaders will also need to approve the bid that includes the morgue in the project, which Zavoral said was likely.

“If they (the county) want to be in, that’s what’s going to happen,” Zavoral said.

Construction could start in the next 30 days, he said. The cost could increase if the city approves any alternate bids for the project, such as a new roof or a repaired parking lot.

The building committee also approved on Friday a feasibility study of the jail expansion Laney is proposing, which would add dedicated space for juveniles.

The county uses space in its jail meant for adults to house juveniles, and male and female juveniles are housed in the same area, Laney said.

“There’s a reason we have to cover the doors because they flash each other,” he said. “They do some of the most inappropriate stuff.”

Laney said the county is meeting minimum standards, but the situation will only get worse as the county continues to grow.

“We’ve always been way better than just meeting the minimum standards,” he said. “We are the role model to the state.”

Montplaisir said the study could cost $40,000 to $50,000.

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