Record-breaking autopsies performed in Marathon Co. as regional morgue task force looks to building new rather than renovate

Published: Aug. 16, 2021 at 6:54 PM CDT
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WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - The Marathon County Regional Morgue Task Force is looking to find a place to build the first morgue in the north-central Wisconsin region from the ground up rather than renovating an existing building. That was the direction the task force collectively determined to take Monday, after conducting a space-needs analysis with the architecture firm, Somerville.

“Things have shifted in quite a different mindset as far as building a new one versus remodeling something,” Craig McEwen, county supervisor and chair of the task force said.

The task force was put together in 2017 after the medical examiner, Jessica Blahnik, saw a growing need for a regional morgue in 2014. McEwen said they looked at several properties the county already owned as well as private partnerships. They were largely focusing on renovating existing buildings, if possible, assuming it would be the most cost-effective for taxpayers.

Most recently, a space on the third floor of the Aspirus-owned building that houses several businesses, such as Aspirus’ shipping and receiving department and the Medical College of Wisconsin Central Wisconsin, was looked at as a strong potential location.

“My heart, at first, was really set on being at the Aspirus location just because of the access to the lab, how great they have been to always work with, the medical college...” Blahnik said, explaining that Aspirus has been great to work with, but there were ultimately several concerns about the space.

With some tenants of the building not being in a medical field, she said Aspirus had a concern that those tenants would have issues with hundreds of decedents coming through every year. The medical college noted they had no issue.

Logistically, there was concern about eventually not being able to use the existing loading dock as well and thus having to create a new loading dock. The concrete facility also does not have windows on the side the morgue would occupy. The space needs analysis showed the process to renovate the space would be complicated.

“Nine times out of 10 they (Somerville) always do the new construction just because of (the) complexity of it,” Blahnik stated. “Even if you do find a building for renovation, you’re going to run into a lot of issues between sealing the building to make sure everything is airtight and making sure ventilation, making sure you have the floor drains. And if you have to do floor drains, you have to elevate the ground, and how does that work with elevated floors when you have an extra four inches compared to the slopes?”

County administrator, Lance Leonhard, said shoe-horning a morgue into an existing facility will reduce the efficiencies, efficiencies which would save money for the county in the long run. He said there are also greater risks that costs would go up overtime unexpectedly.

The estimated costs plus two years of inflation to more accurately estimate when the construction would begin for both renovation and building new were similar, especially when accounting for unexpected renovation costs. It was upwards of $4 million for renovation not taking into account some of the concerns and $5-6 million for building new.

“Unless you found a building that was already set up for this type of purpose, like a renovated funeral home, I think new construction is going to be better,” Dr. Michael Clark, a task force member representing the hospital perspective said. “And I think the biggest limitation, thus far, was the cost. So, we’ve now kind of determined the cost of renovating was going to be similar and likely not give us as good of a result, I definitely think new construction is the way we should proceed.”

The change in direction comes at a time the county is seeing record-breaking autopsy counts. Typically, the medical examiner’s office does 50-60 autopsies annually. It has already met that mark this year.

“That does not include the few autopsies that we wanted to do, but could not do due to COVID or could not do due to not having a pathologist available,” Blahnik noted. She said they had not changed the procedures or qualifications to perform an autopsy either.

“It’s getting more difficult for our autopsies to be performed in a timely manner and it’s getting to a point where we -- and we’ve been dealing with it for years, but it’s really getting worse now,” McEwen said.

After four years of work, task force members said this rise makes bringing the morgue into reality all the more urgent. They are looking at county-owned lots, as well as some private lots they would have to purchase and have a goal to determine a site in the next month. They expect to finalize the plans, bring it forward to the county board, and then begin breaking ground in 2022.

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