Countywants a regional morgue built
By Kevin O’Brien
With hopes of securing state funding, Marathon County is looking to spend $178,000 for designing a new regional morgue that has been in the works for years.
At a county board meeting last Thursday, supervisors reviewed a resolution to continue setting aside $2 million from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to build a regional forensic science center on the campus of Northcentral Technical College (NTC) in Wausau. Of that amount, just over $178,000 would be designated for designing the facility.
If the resolution is passed at the board’s next meeting, design work would start next month and is expected to take five to six months to complete. Once the schematics are done, the project could be bid out late this year or in January of 2024, assuming that funding is made available. The facility is expected to take 12 months to build.
The total cost of the center is estimated to be $14.8 million, so the county will need to rely on a substantial contribution from the state to complete the project, which could potentially serve up to 28 counties in northeastern Wisconsin. County officials have asked that $10.6 million be earmarked for the regional center in the state’s next biennium budget, and another $2 million in federal funds has been requested through Sen. Tammy Baldwin’s office.
The county expects to hear about its state and federal funding requests by September, according to the resolution presented to the board.
At last week’s meeting, the board heard a presentation from medical examiner Jessica Blahnik and supervisor Craig McEwen, chairman of a task force formed in 2017 to explore the idea of building a regional morgue in Marathon County. McEwen said the group was created after Blahnik came to the Public Safety committee with concerns about the difficulty in arranging autopsies. “She felt it would continue to get worse, which it has,” he said.
Blahnik talked about the many benefi ts the regional center would provide to both the county and the state at large, primarily by expediting autopsies throughout the region and providing a place for students to learn forensic science.
Since all the state’s forensic pathologists are located in the southern or far eastern part of the state, medical examiners and law enforcement agencies have to travel hundreds of miles to transport bodies for death investigations. Family members of the deceased must wait longer for autopsy results, and criminal investigations can also be delayed, Blahnik said.
According to a strategic business plan completed by Wipfli LLP, 28 Wisconsin counties (and six in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan) have expressed interest in utilizing a regional morgue in Marathon County, and so have the Marshfield Clinic and Aspirus Hospital systems.
If the regional morgue were built, the medical examiner’s office estimates it would save at least $51,268 per year by eliminating 690 hours of unproductive travel time, travel costs and outsourcing expenses. Local law enforcement agencies would save another $25,457 from eliminating 371 hours of travel time. These numbers are based on the county needing an average of 75 autopsies annually.
Blahnik recalled several times when she had to drive through hazardous road conditions in order to transport a body in a timely manner.
“I’ve had to travel in severe thunderstorms with tornado warnings. I’ve had to travel in really bad ice storms where we’ve had semis in the ditch, because you cannot give up your spot,” she said. “Because, if you give up your spot, you’re going to be waiting additional days.”
According to financial projections, the forensic center could generate as much as $886,000 per year in revenue, and after expenses are deducted, it would net just over $149,000 annually. The estimates are based on survey results, information from other pathology providers, and the need to hire three to six full-time staff, including a forensic pathologist.
Over time, the Medical Examiner’s Offi ce would depend less on the county’s property tax levy by having a regional morgue that generates revenues through service fees, Blahnik said.
The regional morgue would be a partnership with NTC, the Medical College of Wisconsin, Aspirus Hospitals and Marshfield Clinic. Versiti, a company that facilitates blood and organ donations, would lease space from the morgue to procure tissue in a timely manner. Right now, there’s no facility in the area dedicated to preserving bodies for organ donations.
Blahnik said 58 percent of county residents are registered organ donors, but most of them have to be transported to Columbia County to have that process completed. Organ and tissue procurement must happen within strict timelines, she said, and sometimes families lose out on the opportunity to honor their loved one’s wishes.
A selling point for the project is NTC’s location right off Interstate 39, along with Wausau being home to an office of the Wisconsin State Crime Lab and a campus of the Medical College of Wisconsin. The center would serve as a regional teaching center, providing hands-on experience for those pursuing a career in forensic sciences, as well as training opportunities for law enforcement, district attorney’s offices, and medical emergency providers.
Floor plans for the proposed 16,632 square-foot facility include three autopsy stations, a refrigerated storage area, a dedicated teaching space and a family wellness room.
When the county board voted last year to allocate $2 million from the ARPA fund toward the project, it encumbered the funds until July of this year. If no other funding was found by July 31, the money was supposed to be returned to the county’s ARPA fund for reallocation to other purposes.
However, with the county still waiting for news about state funding, the resolution presented to the board would extend the encumbrance of ARPA funds through the end of this calendar year. If outside funds are not committed by December 31, the $2 million will be returned to the ARPA fund for use elsewhere.
Supervisor Tom Sherfinski questioned whether the county would be able to recruit the forensic pathologists needed to staff the facility. Blahnik said two Wisconsin-based forensic pathologists are interested in working in Marathon County, but they may not be available if the project is delayed past 2024.
“Right now, the current pathologists are burnt out, and there’s a risk of losing some of them to other states if their caseloads continue to grow and their responsibilities continue to stack up,” she said. “Wisconsin desperately needs more pathology resources, and this would definitely help offset some of the growing caseload.”