'We have to do something': Kern County coroner finally gets to move into new building

Mar. 25—The dead bodies are piling up at the Kern County coroner's office.

Constructed in 1974, the county's building for investigating all manner of death has proven unable to accommodate the rapid growth in population over the decades. Built to house 30 to 35 bodies at any one time, just this week the coroner's office stored 175 bodies "in various places."

The county has even purchased trailers parked at the Lerdo Jail to hold overflow corpses. When Charles Manson died in Bakersfield in 2017, his body was held in one of those trailers alongside those of residents who had recently passed away.

"I would be a little bit offended if it were relatives of mine," Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood said of that possibility at a Board of Supervisors meeting this week.

To expand capacity, supervisors have approved a plan to lease a 107,000-square-foot industrial building on McMurtrey Avenue, near Meadows Field Airport. The plan calls on the county to pay around $2.3 million per year. Officials hope to use a lease-to-own procedure to purchase the building after three years. County documents put the total cost of the project at around $28.4 million.

The county has known for years that an expansion of the 10,000-square-foot coroner's facility was necessary. At the time of its construction, Kern County's population was around 350,000 and the coroner averaged 1,800 cases per year. Now, the county's population is around 913,090 and the coroner handles an average of 4,100 cases per year.

Excess deaths from COVID-19 stretched the system to its limits. Even before the pandemic, a grand jury found the county was in need of a larger building.

"We're absolutely at that point where we have to do something," Youngblood told supervisors. "And this is a fix for this county for many, many years to come."

The current tenant of the building, MD Manufacturing Inc., a builder of central vacuuming systems, plans to construct a new headquarters and manufacturing operation adjacent to its current facilities. The company sees the lease agreement as a "win-win-win."

"It's an excellent opportunity for private investment to help meet the needs of the public in a unique way," said President Grant Olewiler. "Everyone here is excited. We've got a fairly large staff that has grown here in Bakersfield. It's something we think is wise, both in terms of an investment and we think this location is perfect because we're right off the freeway."

The county has looked into over a dozen buildings in the Bakersfield area to find the right fit, finally settling on the McMurtrey Avenue property because of its location, accessibility and potential for future growth.

Supervisors unanimously approved the lease agreement, which has a 15-year term.

"Our sheriff and his deputies, and all the staff, are absolute rock stars," said Supervisor Phillip Peters. "Anything we can do to help them be more efficient and better at what they're doing, give them more resources to help them with their job, I'm more than happy to support that."

You can reach Sam Morgen at 661-395-7415. You may also follow him on Twitter @smorgenTBC.