Hennepin-Dakota County morgue merger in the works?

  • Article by: KEVIN DUCHSCHERE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 18, 2012 - 11:26 PM

Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek is concerned about possible impacts of combining with Dakota County's operation.

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Hennepin County Medical Examiner Andrew M. Baker, front, and Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek

Photo: Richard Tsong Taatarii, Star Tribune

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Hennepin and Dakota counties are talking about building a joint medical examiner's facility, a proposal spurred in part by prospects that a new Vikings stadium in downtown Minneapolis could force the Hennepin County morgue out of its current location.

That in turn has Hennepin Sheriff Rich Stanek worried that such a move would disrupt services and cancel millions in investments made at the Sheriff's Office Crime Lab, which shares quarters with the county morgue and often works with it on investigations.

"We probably could relocate that lab, but at what expense and what timetable?" Stanek said. "You can't shut down operations of the crime lab while you take two years to build it somewhere else."

Hennepin County Administrator Richard Johnson said county staffers are exploring the possibility of a joint facility at the invitation of Dakota County, where officials say a new and larger morgue is badly needed and soon.

"It could involve other counties because Dakota provides services to a number of other counties, but that hasn't been decided or resolved," Johnson said.

Stanek said that he had been assured by county commissioners and officials that there were no plans to move out of the downtown morgue and crime lab building.

"I only know what I know, that they haven't engaged the sheriff's office," he said.

Stanek said that Hennepin County's crime lab serves 46 cities and has been instrumental in reducing crime in the county. It's internationally accredited and one of Minnesota's leading crime labs, along with that of the state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

Dr. Lindsey Thomas, Dakota County's coroner, said officials began looking into their options for new quarters about four years ago.

"We're just totally out of space here," said Thomas, who oversees the Minnesota Regional Medical Examiner's Office at Regina Medical Center in Hastings. "It doesn't make any sense to invest in remodeling when what we really need is a new facility."

Last year Thomas met Dr. Andrew Baker, Hennepin County's chief medical examiner. He told her that his office, across Chicago Avenue from the Metrodome, might have to move if a new Vikings stadium is built near the Dome site.

"That was when we started talking about what it would look like if we merged," Thomas said. "At this point it looks like our best solution is a merger with Hennepin, so we're looking at the cost and what it would look like."

In the meantime, Dakota County is seeking $7 million in state bonding this year for a facility built without Hennepin.

Johnson said the morgue and crime lab property isn't for sale and that Hennepin officials haven't discussed it with the Vikings.

The team's campaign for a new stadium recently has shifted from its proposed Arden Hills site to the Dome, where state, city and team officials are trying to complete a deal to build alongside it.

Last week Ted Mondale, chairman of the Metropolitan Sports Facilities Commission, included the county property along with other nearby blocks in a proposed plaza that he said could be built outside a new stadium near the Dome.

Thomas estimated that Hennepin County has about twice the workload of the eight counties served at the Hastings facility. "We're hardly dating, let alone living together," she said. "I guess we're still in the getting-to-know-you stage."

Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455

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