Jacksonville City Council Considering Temporary Fix To Overcrowded Morgue

Jan 4, 2018

The Jacksonville medical examiner's office doesn’t have enough room for its bodies. So the City Council could vote as soon as next week on an emergency fix.

Medical Examiner Dr. Valerie Rao presented a plan to nearly double the capacity of her refrigerated space at Thursday’s Council Rules Committee meeting. Rao said her office is running behind on autopsies.

“We are still doing cases from 2017 and we are on the fourth of January,” Rao said. “We’ve had to hold those cases because we have no trays.”

That’s why her team and the Mayor’s Office have come up with a plan that would cost the city $206,000.

“(It includes) additional body space and additional office space,” said city Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa.

The number of body trays would increase from 50 to 90 with a new outdoor walk-in morgue cooler. More equipment would be brought in and a new mobile unit would house offices. All of it would be a temporary fix.  

The Mayor has a new $16 million medical examiners building included the city’s capital improvement plan, but that’s at least five years away. Mousa said that will be moved up.

“We are going to take action in the next couple of years to begin the process in developing a new facility,” Mousa said.

As our News4Jax partner reported in December, a city Public Works report said there wasn’t enough space at the facility and a body had to even be stored on the floor.

Mousa said Thursday, as soon as he found out about that, he met with Rao to come up with an immediate fix.

Councilman Danny Becton said he’d like better data from the medical examiner, saying the city is catching heat for not fixing the issue sooner.

“We do not have the data coming to us that we can do any type of forecast of what her needs are,” Becton said.

He added, although the opioid epidemic is contributing to too-many bodies, that’s a problem the city is combating. It’s currently funding a $1.4 million opioid intervention pilot program.

Credit Lindsey Kilbride / WJCT News

But Roa said drug overdosing isn’t the only factor causing overcrowding.  

“The population of Duval is just skyrocketing and we’ve got to accept that,” she said.

Councilman Bill Gulliford said the medical examiner has needed a new building long before the opioid crisis, adding he visited the facility several years ago.

“It was obvious to me leaving there that, that facility was tired, the layout was bad, the location probably could be improved,” he said.

The medical examiner's office also serves Clay, Nassau, Hamilton and Columbia counties. Mousa said he doesn't want to ask them to pitch in for the expansion, though, because it could delay the process.

But, he said the city would consider asking the other counties to share the cost for the future facility.

Mousa said the process of building a new facility would start with City Council approving around $500,000 for a planning phase to decide how big the building should be and what the programming will look like. That process takes about half a year. Mousa said that funding might be in next year’s budget.

The Mayor's Office plans to ask Council to emergency approve legislation for the $206,000 immediate fix at Tuesday’s full Council meeting without it going through the normal six-week committee process.

Lindsey Kilbride can be reached at lkilbride@wjct.org, 904-358-6359 or on Twitter at @lindskilbride.