BALDWIN COUNTY, Ala. (WKRG) — With a potential increase in the deaths in the county, the Baldwin County Coroner’s Office could see a $5 million expansion to its office to better fit the county’s needs.
Back in March, the county approved a $25,000 feasibility study, contracting an architectural firm to look at the office’s needs.
Based on the growth of the last 10 years, Baldwin County Coroner Dr. Brian Pierce said they are looking at a growth in cases from 663 in 2021 to 750 in 2025 and 893 in 2030.
“Moving forward, it is important for us to understand the Functional Population of Baldwin County so we can fit the level of service to the need of the community,” Pierce said. “In collaboration with ADPH, I have arrived at a daily functional population for Baldwin County that ranges between 298,302, in the fourth quarter of the year, to 454,694, in the busy second quarter of the year. Keeping in mind, this is based on 2019 data, these figures are likely slightly higher. We have certainly seen an uptick in the gross number of deaths, as well as the number of cases referred to our office since 2019.”
Pierce said they need to be ready for a shift in deaths moving out of the COVID-19 pandemic and moving into the fentanyl epidemic. This year, Pierce said 2,540 people have died in Baldwin County.
“If you look at the last ten years, you can see an upward trend,” Pierce said. “Although we did trend down this year, it is because we are coming out of the COVID pandemic. You can expect these numbers to go upward as the population increases. A lot of people don’t realize the number of people that die in the borders of Baldwin County. This year, we have had 2,540 people die. That is a lot of folks. At the coroner’s office we are only going to see about 25 percent of those, because only 25 percent of those deaths require further investigation.”
There are four main areas of concern that Pierce said they need to focus on in the coming years. Those four areas are staffing, technology, mass fatality and facilities.
“With staffing, we want to look to move to a mix of full and part time staff,” Pierce said. “Right now, we are fully part time. Appropriately compensated, this should provide for good longevity.”
Pierce said they are currently in the hiring process for two new full-time death investigator positions that are county positions, not appointed.
“This gives us the stability we need for the office,” Pierce said. “My plan is to have these positions ready to work by Jan. 1. We have established a pretty good vetting process, and to me, that is the most important step.”
In the technology area, Pierce said they have initiated a new case management system that has reduced their office supply costs and increased their ability to share information with county, state and federal agencies.
“Implementation of this new case management system is intended to streamline efficiency, such as office workflow, reporting to law enforcement and public health, as well as provide more real time data on fatalities related to drug overdoses, natural disasters and pandemics.”
Since going live in June 2022, the CMS is performing well, according to Pierce.
“This CMS may have some future revenue potential as intellectual property,” Pierce said. “The system can not only track case reports in real time, but is being developed to provide queries of all collected data.”
Pierce said the current facility they use is aging and they are outgrowing the building. In addition to the current 1,500 square foot building, the office operates out of two Conex containers that house supplies, equipment and medical waste.
The potential $5 million forensics building would be a 13,000 square foot facility that would house the coroner’s office and part of the sheriff’s department. Pierce said they toured many other forensic buildings in the state, including Montgomery County’s, which is 8,000 square feet, Jefferson County’s, which is 8,300 square feet, and Mobile County’s, which is 11,000 square feet.
For Baldwin County’s Forensic Building, 7,200 square feet would be dedicated to the Baldwin County Coroner, 3,000 square feet would be dedicated to the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office and 2,900 square feet would be dedicated to a common space.
In the coroner’s office section, there would be an autopsy area, viewing space, conference room, a death investigator’s office, evidence room, and a cooler to store bodies. In the sheriff’s department’s space, they would have several different offices, an evidence room, digital imaging room and a fentanyl processing room.
Below is a breakdown of costs of the new facility, provided by Adams Stewart Architects:
- Bonds and Insurance – $28,000
- General Conditions – $205,000
- Sitework – $356,000
- Site Utilities – $64,000
- Site Electrical/Generator – $146,000
- Ext. Finishes – $215,000
- Concrete – $460,000
- Structural Steel – $186,000
- Masonry – $986,000
- Metal Stud Framing – $84,000
- Carpentry – $46,000
- Building Insulation – $125,000
- Interior Doors and Hardware – $135,000
- Exterior Doors and New Storefront at Entry – $103,000
- Drywall and Acoustical – $86,000
- Flooring – $210,000
- Painting – $124,000
- Plumbing – $194,500
- HVAC – $285,000
- Electrical – $704,000
- Wall Tile-Restrooms – $29,500
- Toilet Partitions and Accessories – $26,500
- Casework and Glass Int. Wall – $145,000
- Contingency Allowance – $100,000
- Furnishings, Fixtures and Equipment – TBD
- Total Preliminary Budget – $5,043,000
Pierce said there are several ways that they can offset the costs of the facility, including tissue donation, rental space for services, college intern programs, a training center, community outreach programs for substance abuse, virtual autopsies and providing of death investigation services to other counties. They have also applied for grants that could offset the cost.
Baldwin County Sheriff Huey Mack said if they don’t build this facility, they are going to have to come back to the commission and request an add-on to the investigations command building.
“With this building, we are able to put everything under one roof,” Mack said. “Quite honestly, my staff can supplement Dr. Pierce’s staff in a collaborative effort to maybe alleviate some of the full-time staff members.”
Pierce said making the building a forensic office serves the county the best.
“The property is already owned by the county, it’s something we don’t even have to search for,” Pierce said. “We are generating funds now. We will continue to do that. Being able to build this at one time will keep us from piecing it together, hodge-podge. This is a need.”