Hamilton County commissioners on Wednesday announced they will accept a Mount Airy facility offered to the county as a gift by Catholic Health Partners, opening the door to a new county crime lab at the location.
The acceptance comes despite lingering uncertainties about whether the Board of Elections will also move to the former hospital in Mount Airy. County commissioners previously warned the Board of Elections must move with the crime lab to provide the occupancy necessary to financially justify renovations at the 500,000-square-foot facility.
The decision also comes despite remaining questions about how exactly the cash-strapped county government will fund the move and the renovations it entails.
Hamilton County Coroner Lakshmi Sammarco and Sheriff Jim Neil both lobbied for the new crime lab. Citing expert opinions, they argue the current crime lab lacks space and needs to be modernized, which could put criminal evidence and trials at risk.
Board of Commissioners President Chris Monzel called the gift a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” — a sentiment both other commissioners seemed to follow.
“This is a home run for law enforcement in Hamilton County,” Commissioner Greg Hartmann said.
Commissioners explained they will seek various opportunities to fill out remaining space in the facility.
Mayor John Cranley on Jan. 23 offered to move some city police services to the facility, but Hartmann told CityBeat the offer wouldn’t be enough to replace the Board of Elections.
“Without the Board of Elections coming with the crime lab, that’s not enough occupancy,” Hartmann said. “There would be some good potential co-location opportunities with the city (at the Mount Airy facility), but not enough to take up 400,000 square feet.”
But with Wednesday’s development, county commissioners appear ready to take up the Mount Airy facility and new county crime lab even if the Board of Elections doesn’t move.
On Monday, the Board of Elections split along party lines over whether the board should move its offices and early voting from downtown to Mount Airy, where only one bus line runs. Democrats say the move would reduce voting access for people who rely on public transportation to make it to the ballot box. Republicans argue the potential of free parking at the facility outweighs the lack of public transportation.
Of course, part of the issue is political: Democrats benefit from a downtown voting location that’s easily accessible to Democrat-leaning urban voters, and Republicans benefit from a location closer to Republican-leaning suburban voters.
With the board’s tie vote, the issue now goes to the secretary of state — Republican Jon Husted — to potentially decide. The secretary of state’s office says Husted will make a decision after he reviews documents from the Board of Elections explaining both sides of the tie vote, but spokesperson Matt McClellan says Husted would like to see the issue resolved locally before he is forced to intervene.