NWFL officials close to buying morgue land, far from settling split of construction costs

·3 min read

Officials are scheduled to close on land for a new regional Medical Examiner’s Office at the end of this month, but it is still unclear if or how four Northwest Florida counties will split the cost of the facility.

At the Santa Rosa County commission meeting Monday morning, commissioners saw a preliminary site plan for the new District 1 Medical Examiner's office and received updates on the stances of other counties involved in the project.

The Medical Examiner's Office serves Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties and currently is located in Ascension Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola. Officials want a facility larger than the current 4,000-square-foot space with a more central location among the four counties.

A preliminary site plan for the new medical examiner's office in Milton is pictured.
A preliminary site plan for the new medical examiner's office in Milton is pictured.

Escambia County weighs up project: What's a fair 4-way split for a $26 million medical examiner's facility? Some say not 25%.

Okaloosa Commissioners offer support: Okaloosa agrees to give $3M to help fund new Medical Examiner's office

In November, Santa Rosa County commissioners reaffirmed their commitment to providing the land for the new building, committing up to 10 acres, but the counties have yet to decide how to split the design and construction costs.

Earlier this month, the Okaloosa County Commission approved providing $3 million in initial funding toward the project. However, officials in Escambia and Walton counties have not yet committed any funding to the plan.

Dan Schebler, director of operations for the Medical Examiner's Office, gave an update to Santa Rosa commissioners Monday regarding Walton County's involvement. He said Walton County officials committed to the facility sitting in Santa Rosa but did not commit to any funding plan.

A majority of Escambia County commissioners have previously agreed if the other counties didn't want to equitably share the cost for a new facility, the status quo of keeping the operations in Escambia County can remain in place.

"There's a big elephant in the room and that's Escambia County," Santa Rosa County Attorney Tom Dannheisser said at Monday's meeting. "For those who weren't there, their representative basically wasn't agreeing to anything. So, we're going to have to work on getting consensus from all the counties to be able to move forward."

District 1 is currently the only district in Florida without a facility dedicated to the medical examiner. The medical examiner currently operates out of Ascension Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola out of a space officials say is aging, cramped and not equipped to meet its growing workload.

District One Medical Examiner Support Inc. (DOMES), a nonprofit corporation through which the four counties oversee the office, recommended Caldwell Associates Architects to build the new morgue, which is estimated to cost about $24 million.

The state Legislature has approved a total of $750,000 for a new facility, including a $500,000 appropriation from the most recent state budget.

State Sen. Doug Broxson, R-Gulf Breeze, has been working with DOMES on the project lately. He has said he will continue to seek legislative funding to support the construction phase of the project.

At the Santa Rosa commission meeting Monday morning, District 1 Commissioner Sam Parker tossed around the idea of having all four commission boards meet to discuss the project, but that idea was ultimately dismissed.

Dr. Deanna Oleske, District 1 chief medical examiner, gives statistics during the State of the Medical Examiner District presentation at the Santa Rosa County Administrative Center Board Room in Milton on May 3. Officials from Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties are still trying to reach on consensus on an equitable split for funding design and construction costs of a new medical examiner's facility.
Dr. Deanna Oleske, District 1 chief medical examiner, gives statistics during the State of the Medical Examiner District presentation at the Santa Rosa County Administrative Center Board Room in Milton on May 3. Officials from Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties are still trying to reach on consensus on an equitable split for funding design and construction costs of a new medical examiner's facility.

"It's just I can see 20 people having 20 different ideas. And it's hard enough for five of us to sometimes get together. I appreciate your input on that," Commission Chairman Bob Cole said in response to the proposal.

Santa Rosa commissioners voiced the need to move the project forward.

"I think it's important that we take the step to go ahead and get this done. We were the first to really come on board. Okaloosa is the first to have an official vote on it," said District 5 Commissioner Colten Wright. "But I think that’s a step in the right direction. I think we might very well probably find that Walton and Escambia would come on board once they see that we're really willing to do this."

This article originally appeared on Pensacola News Journal: Florida District 1 morgue: 4 counties still trying to divvy $24M cost