Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Hartmann ruffled feathers Feb. 5 when he called Hamilton County’s crime lab “a luxury item.” Now Democrats are firing back at the assertion.
On Feb. 10, Hamilton County Democrat Chairman Tim Burke sent a strongly worded letter to Hartmann suggesting the commissioner is playing politics with the crime lab and morgue, which have been at the center of a county budget debate. Both offices, which share a building on University of Cincinnati’s medical campus, are in need of extensive upgrades.
Conditions in the 1972 building are so cramped that neither the crime lab nor the morgue has room for the extra employees it needs to process the increasing amount of work it must undertake, including drug analysis and overdose investigations that have skyrocketed with the heroin crisis and other increasing forms of drug use.
Other issues include an outdated electrical grid that won’t allow all the lab’s equipment to be plugged in at the same time and an insufficient plumbing system beneath the building that causes the build up of autopsy debris.
“I’m sorry, but the need for a modern morgue and crime lab is so clear that I can only conclude that your failure to fulfill the Commissioner’s duty to provide that must be due to the fact that our County Coroner is a Democrat who you don’t want to see succeed,” Burke said in the letter.
Hartmann and his fellow commissioners have acknowledged that the morgue and crime lab need attention, but have yet to come to an agreement about how to fix the problem. One possible solution suggested over the past year has been moving both the morgue and crime lab, along with several other county offices, to the former Mercy Hospital building in Mount Airy.
Mercy donated the building to the county for a dollar, and the county has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in upkeep on the property.
“It’s a money issue,” Hartmann said. “The dollars aren’t there. There’s not public demand for a sales tax.”
Republican Commissioners Hartmann and Chris Monzel point to estimates suggesting retrofitting the building could cost upward of $100 million, money the county simply doesn’t have, they say.
They say it would be unwise to ask voters to raise the county’s sales tax again after last year’s battle over a tax hike to renovate Union Terminal. That measure passed after the duo booted Music Hall from the deal, raising Hamilton County’s sales tax by .25 percent for five years.
Hartmann and Monzel have suggested a possible alternative: a regional crime lab created in partnership with neighboring counties and municipalities. Ohio’s other major urban areas, however, have their own dedicated crime labs. Columbus recently committed $11 million to a new crime lab despite being close to the state’s crime lab in nearby London, Ohio.
Hamilton County Coroner Lakshmi Sammarco says a well-funded, county-level lab is a necessity for the Greater Cincinnati area. She had a sharp retort for Hartmann’s recent comments.
“A luxury? As in maybe his fancy cars that are maybe a luxury?” Sammarco said Feb. 6. “Name one person in this county that thinks public safety is a luxury item. Public safety is not a luxury.”