Dead bodies, prison escapes among legislative priorities

Days away from the 2012 legislative session, local officials are offering up wish lists.

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Medical examiner Dr. Lindsay Thomas showed the area where the cooler holds the deceased at the Minnesota Regional Medical Examiner’s Office in Hastings. The morgue serves eight Minnesota counties, including Dakota. The county wants state money to replace it.

Photo: David Brewster, Star Tribune file

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Civic leaders across the south metro are approaching the coming legislative session with fewer requests for money than normal, but more requests for permission.

Scott County isn't asking for a dime for itself but is seeking page after page of suggested changes in rules, often aimed at giving the county more clout in obtaining road and transit improvements in the decades to come.

One particularly intriguing detail: Scott's interest in tweaking the rules concerning payback from a quarter-cent sales tax for transit upgrades. Is that a hint that a county that spurned the idea a few years back is changing its mind? (Dakota was one of five metro counties to sign on.)

Not exactly, said government affairs chief Lisa Kohner -- but it's conceivable.

"I don't think there's any appetite from commissioners right now to join," she said, "but it's something definitely that's a factor in potential board consideration if we would ever look to join."

Cities often have their own agendas: Shakopee's new mayor, for instance, does want dollars spent to put a fence around the state women's prison in his community. (He's also got some Vikings stadium ideas that you may have heard about.) And Dakota County is out for some bucks.

But just as Scott has dropped its perennial request for more money for its regional public safety training center, so also in Dakota, for the first time in years, nothing is being sought for the gradually-being-developed Cedar Avenue busway.

And in one major case the bucks Dakota seeks are for a regional collaboration: improvements to its morgue, which serves Scott and seven other counties as well.

A closer look at some of the counties' legislative agenda:

MORGUE

Dakota County has been mulling a new morgue for years, and a request for financial assistance from the state has been a staple of recent bonding requests. But this time it's also Scott's only monetary item. For that matter, even Hennepin County has thrown its weight behind the proposal.

The morgue in the basement of Regina Medical Center in Hastings serves eight counties in a space that is cramped and outdated.

The interest of the state's largest county could change the project, originally pitched as a $7 million new building in the south metro to serve the eight counties that use the facility in Hastings.

Dakota County Administrator Brandt Richardson said a collaboration with Hennepin may yield a more immediate solution to the space crunch by using extra capacity at a facility in Minneapolis. He also said it may offer a chance to consider a regional or even statewide plan for collaboration, adding that the Legislature could craft incentives toward that end.

"The request could evolve, depending on how fast we make progress on the partnership," he said. "When you look at the technologies and the functions and the need for backup and expertise and 24-hour availability, and the increasing expectations of the criminal justice systems and the public, there are economies of scale here."

COLLABORATION

The potential for the morgue to become a much different animal in an era of shrinking resources could be extended to lots of other things, and in fact the Scott board's top-listed priority is for what's called the M.A.G.I.C. Act (Minnesota Accountable Government Innovation and Collaboration).

The goal of the law would be to free counties from existing restrictions as long as they could prove they truly end up with outcomes justifying the new liberty.

"It was heading toward passage with bipartisan support last year," Kohner said, "and I foresee no problem this year, but it just didn't quite make it out before the session adjourned."

PARKS AND NATURAL RESOURCES

With protected natural areas often getting in its way as it seeks to put in new and expanded roadways, Scott wants to change laws to make it easier to locate new transportation arteries in the state's Scientific and Natural Areas, such as the one that now protects the delicate wetland in northern Scott County known as the Savage Fen.

Dakota County hopes for $480,000 from the Lessard-Sams Outdoor Heritage Council to protect land along waterways, especially the Cannon and Vermillion rivers.

A $1.5 million bonding request would pay for a new pedestrian bridge and trail connecting Lake Byllesby Regional Park to the Cannon Valley Trail in Goodhue County. The river crossing is seen by supporters as a key link in the eventual Mill Towns Trail connecting Mankato to Red Wing.

Lake Byllesby, or rather the dam that forms it, is the focus of Dakota County's most urgent bond request.

The century-old hydroelectric dam is in need of a $5.8 million upgrade to meet federal standards for a probable maximum flood. The county plans to start construction of a new spillway and a perimeter dam this year, and has asked the state to pitch in about $2 million through the bonding bill.

TRANSPORTATION

In a key request for the Cedar Avenue bus line, Dakota County seeks state permission to run buses faster than currently allowed on the shoulder, where the speed limit is capped at 10 mph more than adjacent traffic with a maximum of 35 mph.

A swift journey on the shoulder -- especially when the main lanes are congested -- is what makes the bus rapid transit system, well, rapid. The busway is expected to open in November.

The same request last year received broad support but didn't pass before the session ended.

Scott, which worries that it may not get the kind of roads-and-bridges infrastructure it needs under the current system, argues for new arrangements removing power from the governor-appointed Metropolitan Council and giving it to locally elected officials.

It also wants to increase the amount of money that can be given to smaller fringe counties in the metro that agree to become part of the Counties Transit Improvement Board, the group that divvies up the proceeds from the quarter-cent sales tax aimed at major transit improvements such as rapid-busway stations. That would make it more enticing for a county such as Scott to join.

In a related move, it's pushing, too, for faster movement toward commuter rail, rapid busways or other forms of public transportation coming through Scott -- including a perennial hope that a prohibition against even studying a Dan Patch commuter rail line from Northfield to Minneapolis through Savage can finally be lifted.

SHAKOPEE'S FENCE

Another once-perennial issue is bobbing back to the surface with a plea from Shakopee's new mayor, Brad Tabke, to revive the idea of fencing in the state women's prison in his community.

"I've never been through there before," he said, "but I have now paid a visit and I'm fascinated by what they do. The fact there is no fence around that facility is mind-boggling. It makes no sense to me."

He's well aware that many neighbors are opposed, not wanting to live near Alcatraz. But the fence that's been planned is no blotch on anything, he stressed. "It's not chain-link or razor wire," but rather "brick pillars and wrought iron. It should happen. They gave me a list of attempted escapes and all an inmate has to go over is a hedge."

David Peterson • 952-746-3285 Katie Humphrey • 952-746-3286

  • WHAT'S WRONG WITH THE MORGUE?

    The Minnesota Regional Medical Examiner's Office operates out of 4,000 feet of leased space at Regina Medical Center in Hastings.

    From that basement office, the staff does death investigations and autopsies for eight counties.

    The caseload has more than doubled since the morgue was last renovated in the mid-1980s. In 2009, there were 1,887 death investigations, including 268 full autopsies, with about half of those coming from Dakota County.

    Medical Examiner Dr. Lindsey Thomas said lack of space for work and storage is just one issue. She has also raised concerns about security and evidence storage, staff hoisting bodies by hand because there are no mechanical lifts, and a lack of space for grieving families to view their deceased loved ones.

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