County Commissioners: No to Mount Airy Morgue, Crime Lab

Hamilton County Commissioners announced Feb. 23 that they do not intend to continue pursuing a plan to move the county’s morgue, crime lab and other offices to the former Mercy Hospital in Mount Airy.

Hamilton County Commissioners announced Feb. 23 that they do not intend to continue pursuing a plan to move the county’s morgue, crime lab and other offices to the former Mercy Hospital in Mount Airy.

Mercy had offered the building to the county for $1, but commissioners say retrofitting it would simply be too expensive, costing between $30 million and $100 million. That’s money the county doesn’t have, they say.

“I just don’t see any way for us to make it fiscally prudent,” said Commissioner Greg Hartmann at a Feb. 23 commissioners staff meeting. “I think we should move on from Mount Airy.”

The decision comes as the Hamilton County morgue and crime lab struggle with an outdated and cramped building on University of Cincinnati’s medical campus. The building, built in the early 1970s, is too small to accommodate the number of staff the offices need to process a growing number of cases, including needed drug and DNA testing. The building’s electrical grid and plumbing are also out of date, causing equipment problems and sewage backups.

What to do about the morgue and crime lab’s difficulties has become a politically charged issue. On Feb. 5 during his “state of the county” address, Hartmann called a county-specific crime lab and morgue “a luxury item.” That comment drew derision from Hamilton County Coroner Lakshmi Sammarco.

“Name one person in this county that thinks public safety is a luxury item,” Sammarco said in response. “Public safety is not a luxury.”

All three commissioners have indicated they’re abandoning the hospital plan. Republican commissioners Chris Monzel and Hartmann balked at Hamilton County Administrator Christian Sigman’s proposal last year to put a .25 cent sales tax increase on next year’s ballot to pay for the update to the hospital, and they say no other funds are forthcoming for the project. Democrat commissioner Todd Portune doesn’t back the deal in part because he opposes moving other county offices, including the board of elections, out to Mount Airy.

All three agree something must be done about the lab and morgue. Monzel and Hartmann have suggested cooperation with surrounding law enforcement agencies, or possibly splitting up the morgue and crime lab at separate sites, potentially in spaces the county already has available.

“We just don’t have the dollars,” Hartmann said at the staff meeting. “So the best way to do that is to look into some of our existing space. We’ve got some potential I think that are good ones.”

Hartmann suggested looking at moving the crime lab downtown to the county building on Ninth Street. The lab could take a spot currently occupied by the county’s public defender’s office, which has also been looking to relocate.

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