Olathe & Southwest Joco

Proposed Joco coroner facility seen as regional resource

A proposed floor plan for the coroner’s facility.
A proposed floor plan for the coroner’s facility. SmithGroup JJR and PGAV

A new $19 million building would give law enforcement in Johnson County the equipment and space it needs for increasingly sophisticated autopsy procedures and could become a regional resource for Kansas counties that lack the means to do evidence gathering at microscopic levels, say the officials who put the idea before the Johnson County Commission on Thursday.

The new facility would be built with the air handling system, contamination separation and lighting needed to assess microscopic bits of evidence in death investigations. David Fowler, Maryland’s chief medical examiner, told the commission that with proper staffing, the space could generate revenue from other counties. Fowler was brought in as a consultant and was part of the presentation group that included architects SmithGroup JJR and PGAV.

Currently, Johnson County’s autopsies are done at Frontier Forensics Midwest LLC in Kansas City, Kan., by private doctors who have previously agreed to do them. The county coroner’s office is run by Robert Prosser, an emergency room physician who does not do autopsies.

A new forensics lab has been on the wish list of county law enforcement officials since at least 2006, when it was first discussed informally as a potential part of the county’s Sunset Drive campus in Olathe. Sheriff’s department officials got $150,000 approved last summer for the study. The idea has gotten a fresh boost as commissioners approach a decision on building a new courthouse. If the commission asks voters to approve funding for a courthouse, the forensics lab could be included in the financing.

The county commission got its first detailed look last week at a rough floor plan and how much a facility might cost. The architect’s plan calls for a free-standing 29,000-square-foot building that would be across 118th Street to the south of the county criminalistics lab off Sunset Drive in Olathe. It would be screened from the nearest neighbors by landscaping.

The county’s growing population and changes in the science of forensic pathology are the two main reasons given for considering the new building.

Prosser, who could not be at the presentation, said later that the number of autopsies is increasing and facilities in the area that do them are reaching capacity. The county conducts 250 to 300 autopsies a year.

Not all autopsies result in criminal charges. Autopsies generally are performed when a person dies unexpectedly or of a cause that is not immediately deemed to be natural. The percentage of autopsies related to criminal activities has also been going up, he said.

At the same time, the science of biological evidence analysis has become more complex, he said, adding that proper air flow has become crucial to prevent contamination of microscopic DNA evidence.

Hospitals have largely stopped doing autopsies, he said. Frontier Forensics is the only commercial forensics lab in the area and it was not built to meet the modern needs of evidence gathering. “Twenty-first century forensics requires a 21st century facility,” he said. Governments, rather than private interests, are most likely to build forensic labs of the type needed today, he added.

In Missouri, Jackson County opened a new medical examiner’s office seven months ago, and it is possible to send autopsy work across the state line. But Prosser said Jackson County has been very cooperative when asked but its facility is kept busy with Missouri cases.

If the county builds the new coroner’s space, officials also would have to consider how it will be staffed. The proposal estimated that the county would need at least seven people to run the new space in the first year of operation, and that operating costs would be around $850,000, minus the $550,000 the county already pays to outsource the work.

The proposal offered two financing options — a 10-year 0.25 percent sales tax to generate $23 million in principal and interest or a 20-year property tax of 0.260 mills that would generate $27.3 million in principal and interest.

Commissioners asked for more information about the idea but did not discuss its merits at the informational meeting.

Commissioners also looked at needs to be done to bring the courthouse into better compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Commissioners had asked for a report on the cost of improving access in case a plan to build a new courthouse falls through or is not approved by voters.

Some have been concerned that the lack of access exposes the county to legal action.

The study, by the National Center for State Courts, said one of each of six types of the 23 existing courtrooms would have to be brought into full compliance to meet minimum standards. In many cases, that would mean wheelchair ramps or chair lifts in courtrooms that now have steps to the raised witness box and judge’s bench, said Chang-Ming Yeh, who presented the study.

That, plus other renovations for the jury rooms, restrooms, hall doors, staircases and signs would come to roughly $3.8 million on top of the $43.5 million the county would have to spend for other courthouse work over the next 10 years.

There are some problems other than cost, Yeh said. Building ramps and chair lifts might cut into space in adjoining rooms and courtrooms, eventually reducing space in those areas. And staircases can’t be changed.

Commissioner Jim Allen said the study is another step in the county’s “due diligence” on the merits of a new building. “It’s another step hopefully to move toward a new courthouse or getting the proposal to the voters,” he said. “We need to show that we have taken proper steps and identified several reasons why we’re looking at a potential new courthouse.”