Medical Examiner’s Office to be excluded from Public Safety Campus referendum in 2016

Sarasota commissioners express dismay that Manatee commissioners had not heard of the plans before Oct. 29

Dr. Russell Vega. News Leader photo
Dr. Russell Vega. News Leader photo

Sarasota County Administrator Tom Harmer and Manatee County Administrator Ed Hunzeker have been charged by their boards with facilitating new discussions regarding the future location of a combined facility for the 12th Judicial Circuit’s Medical Examiner’s Office.

The action followed expressions of dismay on the part of Sarasota County commissioners last week that their Manatee counterparts had no knowledge until Oct. 29 of Sarasota County plans for a November 2016 bond referendum that would cover expenses for a new Public Safety Campus on Cattlemen Road. Since 2013, the Sarasota board has had discussions with Medical Examiner Russell Vega about his interest in consolidating his facilities with those of the proposed new Forensics Lab for the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office. That complex would be one of several planned for the Cattlemen Road site, adjacent to the new Sarasota County Emergency Operations Center.

“Clearly, there’s been a communication breakdown,” Sarasota County Commissioner Christine Robinson said during the boards’ joint meeting on Oct. 29 in Bradenton.

“I sort of feel like we’re coming in late and the party’s already started,” said Manatee Commissioner Larry Bustle, adding, “I don’t mean to be frivolous about that, because [the proposal] looks to be cost-effective.”

“Our residents lose out when a two-year conversation doesn’t get carried forward,” Sarasota Commission Chair Carolyn Mason pointed out. “I hope we can fix that for the future.”

“I didn’t realize there wasn’t a discussion between the medical examiner and Manatee County until today,” Sarasota County Administrator Tom Harmer added.

Vega has held his position for 12 years, he pointed out, and “the same issue’s been on the table for 20 years or so.”

Manatee Commission Chair Betsy Benac told the Sarasota board members that Oct. 29 was the first time her commission colleagues had heard the proposal for the Public Safety Campus. She agreed with the positive aspects Vega outlined in regard to putting all of his facilities under one roof, instead of spreading them over Sarasota and Manatee counties. However, she said her board is looking at a budget shortfall in 2018.

Other Manatee commissioners expressed concern that the location of the complex should be closer to the counties’ border.

“I think Mr. Harmer and I could work together and talk through the issues,” Hunzeker told the commissioners, including the funding and timing aspects of it.

Harmer said his staff would proceed with removing the medical examiner’s facility from the list of needs planned to be covered by the 2016 bond referendum.

The presentation

Harmer introduced the Oct. 29 agenda item by noting Vega’s interest in having the new facility included in the referendum. Therefore, Harmer said, he wanted to make sure both commissions approved the approach.

Steve Botelho, assistant Sarasota County administrator and that county’s chief financial officer, then explained that the goal is to have the referendum on the 2016 Presidential Election ballot. Tentatively, he continued, if the voters approved the referendum, it would cover the expense of building new structures on Cattlemen Road for the Sarasota County sheriff’s administrative offices, training facility, parking structure and its Forensics Lab and related offices; improvements to the R.L. Anderson Courts Building in Venice; and a fleet facility for the Sheriff’s Office and the county, if an appropriate location could be found.

A graphic shows the proposed Public Safety Campus. Image courtesy Sarasota County
A graphic shows the proposed Public Safety Campus. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Isaac Brownman, public works director for Sarasota County, pointed out that the Cattlemen site is close to Interstate 75’s Exit 210 for Fruitville Road. He also showed the boards a rendering of the potential layout on the site.

Brownman stressed, “This is all preliminary at this point.” The tentative budget just for the medical examiner’s space is $10,357,100, he said; that covers the design and construction expenses. With the addition of the traditional 10-percent contingency, he continued, the total would be $11.4 million.

Brownman told the boards that 2018 would be the earliest a construction contract could be issued, based on county staff estimates.

(The last discussion the Sarasota County Commission had on the proposed referendum came during its final 2015 budget workshop, held in August. At that time, the board, at the suggestion of Commissioner Charles Hines, asked Harmer and staff to evaluate options for the referendum with an eye toward reducing the costs. A slide Harmer presented that day put the grand total for the Public Safety Campus, a new Central Energy Plant, the combined fleet maintenance facility, the new courts building in Venice and a third story shell for further judicial center expansion in the R.L. Anderson Center at approximately $211 million. With a 10-percent contingency, the estimate grew to $231,900,000.)

An August chart show projected expenses to be covered by the referendum. Image courtesy Sarasota County
An August chart show projected expenses to be covered by the referendum. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Mason pointed out to the Manatee commissioners that Sarasota County already owns the Cattlemen property.

Then Vega reminded the boards that his office operates out of three facilities: two in Sarasota County, including one in Sarasota Memorial Hospital where autopsies are conducted for Sarasota and DeSoto counties; and one in Manatee County for autopsies. His administrative office is on Siesta Drive in Sarasota.

“We would gain a lot of efficiencies by having all of our operations … under one roof,” he said. For example, he could pare 2.5 full-time-equivalent employees from his staff, leaving him with just four.

Vega also explained that his staff is dealing with “a great number of overdose deaths from heroin and synthetic heroin. … We’re actually seeing more of it in Manatee County than in Sarasota County.”

He predicted his caseload will have climbed at least 22 percent from the 2014 calendar year to the 2015 calendar year, though he said he believes “in all likelihood [it will be] between 25 and 30 percent [higher].”

Further, Vega noted his concern about maintaining the necessary “chain of evidence” in transporting specimens between locations, along with his worries about the loss of paperwork in transit. Reports could be completed much more quickly, he added, “with less likelihood of errors,” if he and his staff operated out of one facility.

Travel time for the physicians who handle the autopsies also would be reduced significantly, he said, enabling them to complete more cases at a faster pace.

Additionally, he pointed out that in Manatee County, his staffing situation does not permit the office to remain open after normal working hours or on weekends to enable funeral home personnel to pick up bodies, sometimes leading to delays for family members planning services.


Manatee County Commissioner Larry Bustle. News Leader photo
Manatee County Commissioner Larry Bustle. News Leader photo

After Vega completed his presentation, Manatee Commissioner Bustle said that if his board were to consider a consolidated facility, “a big part of the decision process should be picking the site,” and that the location should be at the epicenter of all the users.

The Medical Examiner’s Office also serves DeSoto County.

Manatee Commissioner Carol Whitmore told the Sarasota commissioners, “This wasn’t on our radar at all,” including the plans for the referendum. “So our big thing is funding.” Moreover, Whitmore said, the Cattlemen site is quite a distance from north Manatee County. She noted that previous discussions about a future consolidated facility for the medical examiner had focused on the University Parkway corridor.

Manatee Commissioner Vanessa Baugh concurred with the desire for a different location. “I didn’t know you guys were going to be looking for a decision from us today on this,” she added, speaking to the Sarasota board members.

Sarasota Commissioner Robinson told Vega her board had asked him and two different administrators — Randall Reid prior to Harmer — to address the combined facilities issue with the Manatee County administrator. “Is this the first time this discussion’s come up?” she asked Vega.

Vega replied that he had been bringing up the need for a consolidated facility “virtually every year” as he has made separate appearances before the two commissions.

However, during the recent economic downturn, he continued, it was clear the proposal would have to be put on hold.

Vega added that Sheriff Tom Knight was the one who broached to him the idea of consolidating the Medical Examiner’s Office with the Forensics Lab on the Cattlemen site. (The proposal for new Sheriff’s Office facilities first publicly came before the County Commission in 2013.)

The reason the referendum proposal was on the agenda for the Oct. 29 meeting, Vega continued, “was simply one of timing and sort of a collision of events.”

“I’m certainly not married to any specific location,” Vega told the Manatee and Sarasota commissioners. He added that he had discussed a joint facility with DeSoto County leaders, and they had made it plain in the past that they could not afford to contribute financially to such a project.

Bustle then suggested a task force be appointed to represent both counties in discussions about how best to proceed. However, Hunzeker proposed the boards let him and Harmer work through the issues and then bring recommendations back to the commissions.

Sarasota Chair Carolyn Mason agreed with Manatee Chair Benac that the two administrators should “chew on this apple and get back to us. … They may come up with something we all could agree to.”