Officials say a plan for Scott and Dakota counties to move into Hennepin County's morgue is needed, despite the higher price, because the morgue in Hastings is cramped and outdated.
In an era where governments tout partnerships as money savers, Dakota and Scott counties plan to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars more each year to partner with Hennepin County on death investigations.
It's a merger, officials say, that is born of necessity.
The Minnesota Regional Medical Examiner's Office in the basement of Regina Hospital in Hastings is cramped and dated, long operating on a shoestring budget. Replacing the morgue isn't a matter of if, but when.
"If we don't do this, we're going to have a big outlay to do something with the place that we have right now," Dakota County Commissioner Paul Krause said last week, as board members agreed to pursue the merger.
Dakota County budgeted $567,000 for the medical examiner's office this year. Under the proposed deal with Hennepin County, it could cost up to $1 million in 2013. Scott County's budget this year is $198,000, and it could nearly double, with the expected annual increase ranging from $130,000 to $185,000.
"Any way we slice it, the conclusion is it will be more costly to provide the medical examiner services we are required to provide," said Matt Smith, Dakota County's deputy administrator.
The Hastings morgue serves eight counties.
"We've gotten by on the cheap for years because we have a really, really bad facility," said Gary Shelton, the Scott County administrator.
He said Scott County compared the pros and cons of deals with Anoka or Hennepin counties and reckoned costs between the two were liable to be "a wash." Big factors included shorter drive times and the ability "to control our future costs based on levels of service."
Shelton describes in vivid terms the shortcomings of the existing facility.
"There's not enough cooler space for bodies and, quite honestly, they don't have the proper equipment to move bodies and end up manhandling them," he said. "A good way to injure your back is to move dead weight."
The Hastings morgue also lacks proper ventilation for when infectious diseases are present, he said.
"They don't have a really good place for families to come and view the body or be interviewed. They don't have a way for law enforcement to respectfully observe the autopsy. They really don't have good security. The list goes on and on."
Asked what she most looks forward to in the merger with Hennepin County, Dr. Lindsey Thomas, the medical examiner in the Hastings office, said, "Where do I start?"
With the move, she'll leave behind the too-small space and a host of administrative duties, finance and human resources management among them.
25 years since last remodeling
From the morgue in Hastings, Thomas and one other forensic pathologist have seen the caseload double -- with 2,200 death investigations in 2011 -- since the facility was last remodeled in 1987.
Hennepin County commissioners are likely to act on the merger issue in August.
So far, only one of the other counties that uses the Hastings morgue -- Houston, in far southeast Minnesota -- says it is likely to take its business to Hennepin County. Officials with Carver and Chisago counties plan to recommend to their boards that they move to Anoka County's Midwest Medical Examiner's Office.
Both Carver County Administrator David Hemze and Chisago County Administrator Bruce Messelt said the Anoka morgue will be closer for them. Both also said that a factor in their decision was the question about whether the new Vikings stadium might eventually force the Hennepin County morgue to move.
No decision has been made in Fillmore and Freeborn counties, though Freeborn County Administrator John Kluever said officials were looking at options. Goodhue County officials couldn't be reached for comment.
Dakota County officials have grappled with the future of the Hastings morgue for years. They have had a standing state bonding request for $7 million to put toward a new building that could serve as a regional morgue.
Those discussions may continue even under the new partnership, because the parking lot of Hennepin County's morgue on Chicago Avenue may be gobbled up for the new Vikings stadium.