February 27, 2023
Pocatello–The Bannock County Commissioners met last Thursday to discuss the use of the County’s share of Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding. While the county has several projects it plans to use these funds for, the costliest and most controversial is the proposed Forensic Pathology Center.
Commissioner Crowder opened the discussion by proposing “that we terminate this project effective immediately.” He explained that the project was intended to save Bannock County both time and money; however, recent analyses show that the Center will be much more expensive to build and run than was originally projected. “Should we continue to move forward with this project,” Crowder said, “we’re looking at spending $7 million to $9 million, and increas[ing] our annual autopsy spend by $100,000, to save six hours of driving time, twice a month, for a handful of people attending autopsies. At the same time, we’re asking the Bannock County taxpayers to subsidize, to the tune of perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars more, our surrounding counties’ autopsies if they balk at paying such dramatically higher costs.” He proposes that the ARPA funds should be used instead “to address the approximately $16 million in identified deferred maintenance and renovations to existing buildings that we already own, thus taking this expense off the backs of the taxpayers both now and into the future.”
Initial projections suggested that the Forensic Pathology Center could be built and outfitted for two million dollars, and that it would serve a thirteen-county area. Now, however, cost estimates obtained from the County Comptroller and the county’s consultants range from $7.5 million to over $9 million in start-up costs. Additionally, the Center will require three employees–a forensic pathologist, a forensic tech, and a transcriptionist–whose salaries will cost between $400,000 and $500,000 per year.
Commissioner Hough believes that the Center will handle enough autopsies to keep the cost per autopsy around $2,300, which is approximately three hundred dollars higher than the fee Ada County currently charges. While coroners throughout the region have verbally expressed interest in sending their autopsies to Bannock County rather than Ada County, there seem to be no written agreements at this time. Bannock County’s consultants differ in their estimation of how many autopsies the Forensic Pathology Center would handle; former Ada County Coroner Dotti Owens believes it would see between 100 and 120 autopsies in the first year of operation, while the Smith Group believes it would not reach 120 autopsies per year until around 2050. The region currently requires around 85 autopsies per year.
Bannock County Coroner Torey Danner told the Commissioners that in 2022, his office handled 25 cases which required autopsies. He believes that number will increase this year due to the uptick in drug overdose deaths. Danner, as well as representatives of the Sheriff’s Office and Police Department, all stated that they have limited the number of autopsies they request, since many requests are denied. They anticipate that they will request more autopsies in the future, if they no longer have to consider the possibility of rejection.
Commissioner Crowder pointed out that if the Center’s operating costs are in excess of $400,000 every year for personnel alone, even doing 100 autopsies per year will not be enough to keep the cost per autopsy at the level Hough suggested. Hough responded that Crowder’s numbers were “very outdated” and assured him that “workable numbers” will be available by next Tuesday. It was also suggested that the Center could offer private autopsies as well as those required by statute or requested by law enforcement.
Commissioner Moser ended the discussion by putting forward a motion to commit $7 million to the Forensic Pathology Center. Commissioner Crowder requested a roll-call vote. Both Commissioners Moser and Hough voted in favor of the motion; Commissioner Crowder opposed it.
An update on the Forensic Pathology Center is scheduled for Tuesday, February 28, at 10:00 a.m.