It came as a shameful surprise to learn that North Dakota's largest and -- we'd like to think -- most forward-thinking county -- has been operating without an official morgue or coroner's office. County death inspectors have worked out of their homes and local funeral parlors have accommodated the county by storing bodies.
The shocking lack of appropriate facilities recently came to light when Cass County commissioners balked at an offer by the city of Fargo to provide space for a morgue and coroner's office in the new public health center planned for a former Sunmart store. County commissioners blanched at the $600,000 price tag associated with the city's offer.
That's certainly not an insignificant sum, but, as anybody who has bought a home can attest, real estate in any form is not cheap. For a bit of perspective, the price tag associated with the city's offer is about 3.8 times the median home price in Fargo, $157,100. The Cass County coroner, Dr. John Baird, has seen the number of death investigations essentially double over the past 30 years, from 100 to 150 per year to 200 to 250 per year. The number will only increase along with the county's population, which rose almost 22 percent from 2000 to 2010, growing from 123,138 to 149,778 over the decade.
Cass County commissioners took what the coroner rightly described as a "slow step" Monday when they voted to make the county's two death investigators, now contract workers, county employees with benefits starting Nov. 1. Commissioners also made "interim" space available for a coroner's office in the courthouse as well as a used county vehicle.
Let's not mince words here: Cass County commissioners' actions have been petty and shortsighted. They have allowed their fetish for frugality to override their responsibility to provide dignified space for county residents whose unattended or suspicious deaths call for a county death investigation. They have gotten used to imposing on contract workers, expecting them to work from home, and the good graces of funeral directors who have made space available to store bodies -- sometimes decomposing corpses.
The city's space offer provides certain advantages. The new public health center will have an adjoining police substation. Since county death investigators often work with police -- the situation in 85 percent of cases -- the location offers convenience and efficiency. Sharing space with the city also probably offers the quickest path to a permanent solution.
County commissioners sound like they're in denial. Commissioner Ken Pawluk, for instance, said he's reluctant to take business away from the funeral homes, but Baird said cadaver storage is not something the funeral homes are seeking. "
Perhaps, since Fargo accounts for the vast majority of death investigation cases, city leaders might find it appropriate to reduce the cost of the space offer. Regardless, county commissioners should stop dragging their feet and accept their responsibility to provide appropriate space for a permanent coroner's office and morgue. This embarrassment has gone on too long.