After years of pleas, District 12 medical examiner finally wins County Commission support to make new facility for his operations a priority

Board members propose buying or leasing space instead of constructing new facility

A photo on the District 12 Medical Examiner’s Office website shows the Siesta Drive building out of which Dr. Russell Vega and his staff work. Image from the website

For a number of years, Dr. Russell Vega, the District 12 medical examiner, has been telling the Sarasota County commissioners of his need for a new facility with sufficient room to accommodate autopsies and the administrative work of his staff.

This year, when Vega renewed his pleas in June, commissioners acknowledged that his request deserves to become a high priority. The board members directed staff to work with Vega to find the most cost-efficient solution.

“You’ve been the most patient person I’ve ever dealt with, dealing with the same need for many years,” Chair Charles Hines told Vega on June 18. “I appreciate that.”

“And hopefully, you’ll find a way to reward that patience in the near future,” Vega replied.

During his June 18 presentation of his proposed budget for the 2020 fiscal year, Vega talked of having discussed locations with county Real Estate Division staff, focusing on county-owned property. As a result, he said, he had decided that the best potential site is property known as the “Northwest Quad,” near the Celery Fields. That parcel sits at the intersection of Palmer Boulevard and Apex Road.

The second best option, he continued, would be next to the county’s Emergency Operations Center at 1301 Cattlemen Road.

Commissioners countered that they believe it would be far more expensive for the county to construct a building for Vega than to purchase or lease one.

Commissioner Charles Hines addresses comments to county staff. File photo

Hines asked Deputy County Administrator and Chief Financial Management Officer Steve Botelho for the approximate cost of construction for a county facility, adding that he thought it is around $350 to $400 per square foot.

Those figures reflect staff discussions, Botelho responded, with the final number dependent on the type of facility.

“It’s disgusting,” Hines pointed out, noting that the high expense largely is a result of bidding processes local governments legally are obligated to use.

When Hines asked Vega if 25,000 square feet would be the right size for the new facility Vega is seeking, Vega replied, “That’s about what we need.” However, Vega noted, 30,000 square feet would accommodate expansion that probably would be necessary in the future.

Then the total cost for the county to construct a new facility for the Medical Examiner’s Office would end up being approximately $12 million, if the county owned the land, Hines stressed.

Commissioner Alan Maio also pointed to discussions he and his colleagues have had about the potential of selling the Northwest Quad, except for the portion where a new fire station will stand. Additionally, Maio said, “I just think we could get a lot more money and better utility out of the [parcel] on Cattlemen Road. But there might be an office building [the county could buy …”

Maio pointed out that, in 2017, the commission approved a proposal of the Sheriff’s Office to purchase a building on Cattleridge Boulevard, where Sheriff Tom Knight could relocate his department’s administrative offices and other facilities, such as the Forensics and Drug Lab and evidence storage.

“I can’t believe in a county of 428,000 people that there are not Realtors listening to our conversation right now that can’t find a place for you,” Maio added to Vega.

Hines concurred with Maio on the potential of emulating the Sheriff’s Office relocation model for Vega.

“This guy’s been asking for the same thing the whole time I’ve been on this commission,” Hines told Botelho and County Administrator Jonathan Lewis. (Hines first was elected to the board in 2012.)

“We’ve missed opportunities to buy things,” Hines continued. “We can borrow money [at a low interest rate],” he pointed out, referring to the 2.47% interest on bonds for The Legacy Trail that the county just issued.

Dr. Russell Vega appears before the County Commission on June 18. News Leader photo

Noting that Vega pays about $150,000 in rent per year for the Medical Examiner’s administrative offices on Siesta Drive, Hines said that money instead could go toward debt service on bonds.

“I’m not lecturing you,” Hines told Vega. “I think you can get what you need for a heckuva lot less than us building it and us taking off [the market] a piece of property that we might have some other needs for.”

Lewis explained that staff would have to determine how much the county would need to borrow and how much of the debt service would come out of the General Fund. The latter, staff has explained on numerous occasions, is the most constrained account for budget purposes, as the operations of many county-controlled departments — and those of county constitutional offices, such as the Sheriff’s Office — have to be paid for out of the General Fund.

Lewis added that staff would come back to the commission after putting together a more detailed plan about funding options for a new Medical Examiner’s Office.

“My whole goal … was not to undermine anybody,” Vega told the board. “I’m looking for the cheapest way to do this. … We’re flexible.”

An increasingly pressing need

As he began his June 18 budget presentation, Vega explained that his office handles autopsies for Sarasota, Manatee and DeSoto counties. He has close to 18 full-time employees, he added, and they work out of three separate facilities.

The three counties fund his operations on a per capita basis, Vega said.

A graphic shows facets of how the budget works for the District 12 Medical Examiner’s Office. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Manatee County has built a new autopsy facility for his staff to use for cases in that county, Vega continued.

However, Sarasota County pays Sarasota Memorial Hospital (SMH) for use of its facilities and autopsy technicians on a per-body basis for that purpose, he noted. The figure for his 2019 fiscal year budget is $285,000, he pointed out; in FY18, it was $254,772.

He also stressed that the SMH morgue has insufficient space in the event his office had to handle a massive fatality scenario.

Overall, Vega continued, his budget for the current fiscal year — which ends on Sept. 30 — is $3,173,153, including the fees paid for transport of bodies. His proposed budget for the 2020 fiscal year, he said, is $3,414,357.

“A facility for us to operate out of is a critical need,” he told the commissioners. As far back as 1996, he continued, the District 12 medical examiner — who was a pathologist at SMH — proposed that the Medical Examiner’s Office have its own building. “The recession pretty much ended [earlier efforts to achieve that],” Vega said.

Then, several years ago, he continued, the commissioners started talking about including a facility for the Medical Examiner in a bond referendum proposal that also would cover the expenses of new Sheriff’s Office buildings on the same Cattlemen Road property where the Emergency Operations Center stands. “And that never came to be.”

Hines pointed out that as the expected total expense of the facilities envisioned for that site grew to more than $200 million, the board members agreed that that was far too high a number to take to the public in a referendum.

This graphic shows more details about the District 12 Medical Examiner’s Office budget. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Vega explained that he needs one facility in Sarasota County where he can manage all his employees and have adequate room for records storage.

He has no room to expand in the Siesta Drive offices the county rents for his administrative purposes, he noted. A slide he showed the board further pointed out that parking for that office is problematic, the roof leaks and the building — which stands at the intersection of Siesta Drive and U.S. 41 — is not hardened for hurricanes, has no back-up power source in the event of an extended outage and needs updating of security features.

“I know I’ve sort of been laying this on your doorstep for the last few years,” he acknowledged.

Among the reasons he had focused on the Northwest Quad, Vega continued, is that its proximity to Interstate 75 would make his operations there easily accessible to all three of the counties his staff serves.

Further, he said, “It’s the right kind of setting,” as he would prefer a site away from commercial uses, given the fact that bodies would be transported in and out of the facility.

“We wouldn’t have a lot of traffic,” he added. “We wouldn’t create a lot of noise.”

Commissioner Nancy Detert was the first to respond, indicating that she had no problem with the Quad parcel, but, “We’re talking millions” to construct a new facility. “We might have to buy you [a] building in a location that isn’t your favorite, but that’s what we can afford to do.”

Commissioner Michael Moran suggested to Vega that he search nationwide and then determine the “perfect model of what you want …” Following that initiative, Moran continued, staff and the board members would figure out where the facility could be located within Sarasota County and how to pay for it.

A graphic shows the three ‘Quads’ parcels (outlined in red) originally under consideration for sale as surplus land. The Northwest Quad is No. 3. Image courtesy Sarasota County

“We have a basic tug-of-war with Jonathan Lewis,” Commissioner Maio added, referring to the county administrator. The board members have lots of wants, Maio continued. “Yet, we also tell him he better not raise the millage rate.”

Maio recommended that Vega “sit down with staff [and] lay [Vega’s plans] out in a form [so] that we know all the rents you’re paying, all the lost administrative costs of duplication of efforts. …”

“I’m supportive of what you need,” Maio told Vega.

Hines then talked of properties he already had located on real estate websites online as the discussion was underway that afternoon. For example, he said, “There is a 54,000-square-foot building, which is way more than you need, in North Sarasota [in an industrial park] …” That was listed for $3.9 million, Hines added, but it already is under contract to a prospective buyer.

“There has to be empty space existing already in some buildings,” Maio said. “This is notgoing to the moon again.”

“We need to be drilling down and coming up with a plan,” Maio continued. The board probably should have authorized that three years ago, he said. “But I think this commission is not going to make that mistake again.”