York County considers $2.2M plan to build new morgue at prison

Lindsey O'Laughlin
York Dispatch
York County Prison in Springettsbury Township, Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016.

York County Coroner Pam Gay has been sounding the alarm for years about the county's need for its own morgue, and in recent weeks she's tweeted publicly every time her office has run out of room to store bodies.

For decades, York Hospital has been sharing its small morgue with the coroner's office at no cost to the county. But with room for only eight or nine bodies at a time, Gay said the morgue regularly reaches or exceeds its capacity.

York County Prison in Springettsbury Township, Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2016.

If all goes as planned, the county might have its own morgue by mid-2020.

The county could build a morgue and a new coroner's office in a vacant space at York County Prison for $2.2 million, or $343 per square foot, according to a feasibility study recently presented to the York County Prison Board.

That cost estimate includes all necessary equipment, system upgrades and building additions as well as a 25% contingency fund to cover any unexpected costs that might arise during the renovation.

"We looked at every option, from building a new facility to just keeping the operation where it is, and I think this is the perfect solution to our dilemma," said Commissioner Chris Reilly.

The next step will be for the county commissioners to meet with Gay and with the project designer to suss out exactly what the design should entail and to get a final cost estimate, said Mark Derr, York County administrator.

The commissioners will likely vote to hire a design company at their May 29 meeting, Derr said.

The coroner's office is housed at the Pleasant Acres annex building, which the county sold to Premier Healthcare Management along with the county nursing home in 2018.

When the bodies at the morgue exceed the facility's capacity, the coroner's office staff must call families, who may have only learned of their loved one's death within the previous 24 hours, and urge them to choose a funeral home to take the body.

Gay said they wouldn't normally rush a family to make that decision, but her staffers have no choice when they have to make room.

"This is a very real problem, and it’s going to continue to be a real problem until we can provide what we need to this community," she said.

"You can imagine when it’s snowy and crummy weather, some of the bodies don’t get picked up by the funeral directors, and that’s causing a capacity problem," said Commissioner Doug Hoke, president of the prison board.

"They don’t really have a lot of room to expand, so that’s why we’re looking to find a place that’s economical to put our morgue," Hoke said.

Office first, morgue later: One option for the county is to move the coroner's office out of the annex and into the prison space and then add the morgue renovations later, said John Klinedinst, the engineer who presented the feasibility report to the prison board.

The report lists several advantages of the prison-morgue plan.

For one thing, York County Prison already has 24-hour security and plenty of parking spaces. The shared utilities would cut down on costs, and the renovation would require minimal site work.

The renovations will cost money, but the $2.2 million estimate is far cheaper than what neighboring counties are paying to build new facilities, Klinedinst said.

Lancaster County paid $6.4 million for its new coroner's office and morgue, which is about $484 per square foot, and a planned coroner's office and morgue in Northampton County is estimated to cost $10.6 million, or $395 per square foot, the report stated.

The downsides in the report are that there would be limited room for future expansion and a loss of potential revenue for the prison by giving up space that could otherwise be leased out to Immigration Customs and Enforcement.

ICE doesn't currently rent that space, but it's available if the need arises, and the potential loss of revenue could be as much as $1.5 million a year.

More:York County considers buying building for coroner, other departments

More:York County considering creation of new facility to house coroner, others

The county will probably pay for the project with a bond issuance, but it has already applied for a $1 million Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program grant from the state to help offset the cost, said President Commissioner Susan Byrnes.

"This will meet all of the coroner’s requirements as well as use space that is available at the prison because we’ve been using so many diversionary ways of keeping people out of the prison," Byrnes said.

Exterior improvements at the prison would amount to less than 3,500 square feet, which means there's no requirement for the county to submit a land development plan to Springettsbury Township, according to the report.

Once underway, construction and renovations for both the office space and the morgue would take six to nine months, the report states.