Manatee commission first learns of proposal for consolidated medical examiner's facility Thursday

Manatee and Sarasota County Commissioners in a joint meeting at the Bradenton Area Convention Center Thursday. 
Manatee and Sarasota County Commissioners in a joint meeting at the Bradenton Area Convention Center Thursday. TIFFANY TOMPKINS-CONDIE/Bradenton Herald ttompkins@bradenton.com

MANATEE -- Given the area's heroin epidemic, the chief medical examiner for the 12th Judicial District, which includes Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties, has seen an increase in number of overdose deaths it investigates.

The growing caseload has prompted Dr. Russell Vega to ask for a larger and improved space where investigators and examiners can handle the growing number of bodies under one roof. At the end of the year, Vega is anticipating the increase from last calendar year to be be

tween 25 and 30 percent.

"We are seeing really increased caseloads," Vega said during Thursday's joint meeting of the Manatee and Sarasota County commissions. "We are actually seeing more in Manatee County than Sarasota County."

Vega said his office can cut costs and work more efficiently if it consolidates offices in the 12th Judicial District into a single Medical Examiners Facility.

"We would gain a lot of efficiencies by having all operations for the three counties under one roof," Vega said. "We are very interested in being able to pursue this integrated facility."

While Sarasota County Commission has been discussing consolidation for nearly two years, Manatee County Commissioners said they were first made aware of the proposal Thursday, balking at some of the details including the proposed location.

"My alarm is in the fact that there is a clear communication breakdown on this at some point," Sarasota County Commissioner Christine Robinson said. "It does put a dent in the entire thing. It is a long-term project rather than a short term one. ...Our mutual residents are losing out when a two-year discussion doesn't get carried forward."

Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh said she is interested in looking into the idea.

"I think it is a good idea to join and be more regionalized in that regard," she said. "I do see the need and save all three counties and you time as well."

Sarasota County's proposal for the new, consolidated facility places it on a public safety campus in Sarasota County off Cattlemen Road, south of Fruitville Road. Sarasota County is planning to have a referendum during its 2016 election to authorize the issuance of a general obligation bond, which would be used to fund a public safety campus, new courts buildings in Venice and a Sarasota County Sheriff's Office Fleet Maintenance Facility.

As part of the conceptual plan presented Thursday, the new medical examiner's office would be 8,000-sqaure feet and cost $11.4 million, which includes "construction, property, site, soft costs for design and project management and some construction contingency," according to the presentation. An integrated facility could save Manatee County $145,358 annually based on fiscal year 2016 numbers and save a total of $355,053 a year in the three-county district.

In early 2016, the Medical Examiner's Facility in Manatee County will be temporarily closed to remove mold and complete other maintenance. During the two to four month closure, Manatee County services will be done in the morgue at Sarasota Memorial Hospital.

While Manatee County Commissioners were interested in discussing the idea, they had some reservations with the location not being centrally located.

Manatee County Commissioner Larry Bustle said it should be built in an epicenter for all the users.

"I just would ask not assume that the location would be where you show it," he said.

Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore suggested the University Parkway area.

"Fruitville is a long way from north county," she said. "We do need a place that's centrally located."

Vega said he's "certainly not married to any certain location." He said he would be very satisfied with a location near the county line.

Manatee County Commission Chairwoman Betsy Benac said the Manatee commission thought it was premature to discuss it Thursday.

"We have many needs that are pressing for the community and limited resources," Benac said. "We would just be adding this to the pile of unmet needs."

Both county administrators will meet to discuss the proposal. Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker said there are questions of timing and funding.

"We have a funding problem and we are going to have to work through that," Hunzeker said, adding that Manatee County currently has unfunded capital projects.

Also at Thursday's meetings, the commissions:

Learned that Manatee County has filed an administrative challenge and circuit court lawsuit, both in Leon County, against Department of Juvenile Justice. Manatee County has withheld money while challenging past charges that the county believes were too high, County Attorney Mickey Palmer said. "We believe what they are doing is flat out unlawful," Palmer said. "We are challenging it."

According to Nick Azzara, county spokesman, the "state has withheld $76,638 in revenue sharing for a three month period."

Heard an update about the implementation of a new regional public safety radio system, which will improve radio coverage along University Parkway and the barrier islands. The system is expected to be in operation by August 2017.

Received a State Legislative Update in preparation for the 2016 Legislative Session, which begins Jan. 12.

Claire Aronson, Manatee County reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024. Follow her on Twitter @Claire_Aronson.