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Details of last week's donation by BJC HealthCare/Parkland Health Center of a former medical office building to St. Francois County for use as a county morgue was the topic of a PowerPoint presentation given by Presiding County Commissioner Harold Gallaher at the weekly commissioner's meeting held Tuesday morning at the courthouse annex in Farmington.

The donated building was a portion of BJC's purchase of the Mineral Area Regional Medical Center (MARMC) complex on Weber Road in Farmington completed two years ago — and because the county morgue was located at the medical center which would become shuttered soon after purchase — commissioners knew another place for the morgue would need to be obtained as soon as possible.

"This has been a long project," Gallaher said regarding the county's search for a location to place a morgue, noting that it had been determined early on that the minimum of a 7,000 square feet building would be necessary. "In our search for a site, we encountered [the former medical office building]. It's very large — it's 26,000 square feet — but at a listed prices of $660,000, it was the lowest cost. To build the other building would have been three-quarters of a million dollars. This is below that price, so this worked out pretty well for us. We started talking about this.

"This building is exactly the same size as the one we're sitting in [the courthouse annex] — within a half-square-foot. The building we're in needs almost 5,000 square feet for the office access — that's the atrium and three levels, the stairways and the elevator space. The [donated] building only needs 2,700 square feet for access. That's just the hallway. There is no stairs or elevator in it."

Gallaher added that there are still problems being discovered with the HVAC system in the courthouse annex.

"Three or four years ago we found that some of the units had not been hooked up properly," he said. "We're having some of those situations [at the donated building] and we're installing a new HVAC system out there because it's all electric now and we're going to convert that over to natural gas heat and upgrade the air conditioning system while we're at it.

"It's also important that since the morgue is going to be located on the backside of that back wing, that no air interchange be between them — first, for odor and then for pathogen transfer. So, that will be a separated system back there."

In light of the building's donation to the county at no cost — PHC even paid the dollar owed by the county at closing," Gallaher laughingly said, "We finally got it down to a price we could afford — a lot of crying, begging, pleading, threats, you know, whatever. In all sincerity, [PHC President] Tom Karl and [PHC Manager] Steve Marler of BJC and Parkland Health Center were entirely gracious and helpful throughout the process.

"This has been a wonderful exercise in seeing how true gentlemen work. They did everything they could do to help us on this. There's been 200 emails, 100 phone calls. In every case, they handled it very well. I mean, just right on top of it and just couldn't ask for more help — extending their staff to whatever we needed done. It was fun to watch them operate. It was quite an education."

According to Gallaher, there was only one stipulation made of the county by BJC/PHC.

"They just wanted to make the first public announcement," he said. "They did that this past week, so now we're talking."

In answer to why the county went forward with the morgue project, Gallaher said, "St. Francois County has never had a morgue. There was no department, budget, director, policy, office, location or any other aspect of what a county morgue would require.

"The morgue we are using has always been operated as a private business in space provided by MARMC and then BJC/PHC. The only association St. Francois County has with this morgue service is that it is located here and we are a customer — as are 19 other counties.

"With the sale of MARMC in May 2017, we knew the space used for the morgue would soon not be available. PHC has allowed continued use of the space. No service interruptions have happened. If no morgue were available, all bodies to be autopsied would go to St. Louis. This means two trips by transporting personnel — about 48 trips a year — and a delay for the family."

He said death certificates would require more time — sometimes months — due to their case load.

"The family cannot handle important decisions until a death certificate is available. It would have also meant more cost to the county and more inconvenience to the family. These same problems would have been felt throughout southeast Missouri."

Gallaher explained that the two-year process of setting up a county morgue included establishing 1) a location; 2) a department with job descriptions and a business plan for a regional facility; 3) establishing a department budget; and 4) establishing the position of a department director and then going through the hiring process.

"Our county morgue will be a regional morgue," he said. "Another 19 counties will be our customers — a major part of southeast Missouri. Any county ordering an autopsy will pay a fee to St. Francois County. In this manner, our costs are repaid based on usage ...

"St. Francois County is now the hub of our extended area and growing. We have the shopping, the service industry, medical, the largest airport between Cape and St. Louis, the Juvenile Detention Center, higher education and growing railroad usage. We must think in terms of regional, but not let our own taxpayers pay for the improvements needed to expand this regional growth."

Pointing out that the morgue will be using only 16 percent of the building, Gallaher asked, "How can we best use the rest of it to pay the cost of operation of this building while easing stress on our other buildings and parking? Take in renters. One-and-a-half of the wings now have verbal agreements for occupancy. We will be renting to public entities that pay rent elsewhere using taxpayer money. In short, we will be recycling tax money.

"We anticipate that with energy-conserving measures — such as a change to LED lighting, natural gas heat and a modern HVAC system — the income will cover most, if not all, of the costs of maintenance, utilities and insurance."

Gallaher estimates the county will use about 20 percent of the building for storage and other needs, leaving additional room that can be used as a remote location in the event of a natural disaster.

"There are still two nice suites available for either county use or more rentals," he said. "Some of our renters are wanting to move in by July 1, so we are going to have to start working on the air conditioning right away, but we can wait a while longer on the heating. Even though we're going to have to expend some money up front, the return we're going to receive on our investment by renting the space out is going to be well worth it."

The actual cost to county taxpayers for acquiring the Weber Road property, according to Gallaher, was $5,357.30.

"The cost for the land survey and writing a new property description was $2,800," he said. "The recording fee of a new property description was $69. The closing costs, which includes title insurance and the recording fee was $2,488.30. Our attorney fees have not been billed to date. We estimate those will be a few hundred dollars.

"We budgeted $100,000 for this. The remainder was re-budgeted for conversion of the building to our uses and for efficiency changes in HVAC, lighting and other items. The appraised value for the Weber Road facility is $2,470,340. I think we came out ahead on this deal."

At the conclusion of Gallaher's presentation, commissioners Gay Wilkinson and Patrick Mullins offered their sincere thanks to BJC/PHC for its donation to the county and to Gallaher for his many hours of work in bringing the deal together.

The commission also offered a special word of thanks to the county's Road & Bridge Department for their help in moving the morgue equipment donated by BJC/PHC from the previous morgue to its new location, as well as other county employees who lent a hand.

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Kevin Jenkins is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-518-3614 or kjenkins@dailyjournalonline.com

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