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County looks for ways to ease space crunch at coroner’s office

Backlog in autopsies creates hardship on grieving families
La Plata County has yet to come up with a solution to the space crunch involving the La Plata County Coroner’s Office.

Several attempts to remedy overcrowding at the La Plata County Coroner’s Office have so far proved fruitless, and with a strapped county budget, no easy solutions appear viable to deal with the space crunch.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” said La Plata County Coroner Jann Smith. “But I need my own place.”

Since the early 2000s, the Coroner’s Office has contracted with Hood Mortuary in Durango to use its facilities for autopsies.

But with the increasing population in Southwest Colorado, and therefore an increasing number of deaths, there is not enough space to handle the workload, Smith said.

In 2014, for instance, the county performed 39 autopsies. But in 2017, that number jumped to 80 autopsies. And already this year, Smith said the Coroner’s Office has conducted about 20 autopsies.

When someone dies, an autopsy is required if the death meets any of the 14 standards set by the state, which can include crimes of violence, unexplained infant mortality, workplace injury, drugs, suicides or any case the coroner deems appropriate.

The Coroner’s Office can conduct autopsies only two mornings a week, which can create a backlog. And, having to wait a prolonged period creates a hardship on grieving families, Smith said.

Smith

“It’s not fair to them,” she said.

La Plata County came close to a solution: In October, the county found a company that built mobile morgue units and budgeted about $50,000 to purchase it. But when the county called the company back to make the buy a few weeks ago, county officials learned the company stopped making the unit.

“I’ve done exhaustive research to find a similar capability on the open market, unsuccessfully,” said interim County Manager Chuck Stevens. “So now we’re back to square one and it’s a struggle.”

Stevens said annual operating costs for the Coroner’s Office from 2015 to 2019 have more than doubled, a sign of just how much increased workload is coming the department’s way.

“As the population grows, the demand for services increase,” Stevens said. “Even the coroner is feeling the strain of that.”

The county explored the possibility of remodeling part of the Sheriff’s Office, but that option proved too expensive, Smith said.

Stevens said the county budgeted only enough money to buy the mobile unit . Now, the county must evaluate options and come up with a solution that can be implemented in the next budget year.

“We wanted to do something, but now we’re back at the drawing board,” he said.

The coroner’s office is located at the Armory Building in Bodo Industrial Park, where bodies are stored outside in coolers and have to be transported to Hood Mortuary for autopsies. Smith said this winter has been especially difficult. Because the coolers are located outside, staff has had to shovel after every storm.

Smith said her office has moved four times in the past six years, and will move again with the upcoming remodel of the Armory Building.

“I need a place where I don’t have to move them around,” she said. “I need a place.”

jromeo@ durangoherald.com

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