Ada County breaks ground for new coroner’s building

The building in Meridian will replace what was originally a tire shop on Morris Hill Road.

BOISE, Idaho — After seven years of planning, Ada County is building a new coroner’s office and morgue.

County commissioners and Coroner Dotti Owens spoke Thursday morning before groundbreaking at the site for the new facility, located on North Touchmark Way near Eagle and Franklin roads in Meridian.

The 35,000 square-foot building, expected to be complete in fall of 2023, will replace the current coroner’s office and morgue on Morris Hill Road in Boise. The existing building was built in 1966 for General Tire and Rubber Company and, according to the coroner’s office, was not intended for medicolegal death investigations, which the coroner oversees. Ada County purchased the building in 1998. Over the next two years, it housed offices for elections, public defenders and records retention before the coroner’s office was relocated there in 2000.

“Until recently, Morris Hill was the proud owner of jail toilets and courtroom pews,” Owens said.

Idaho law directs the county coroner to investigate all deaths that occurred as a result of violence, whether by homicide, suicide or accident; also, any death that occurred under suspicious or unknown circumstances; unattended deaths; and stillbirths.

Until 2002, all autopsies and body inspections were conducted in the morgue facility at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center. When the county opened a morgue in the Morris Hill office, population growth models at the time suggested it would be sufficient for the next 20 years. Owens noted how that quickly changed.

“In the last 20 years, Ada County has grown by almost 73%, greatly exceeding any of the projections and causing the current facility to experience chronic capacity issues. We are now crammed in so tight that the quality of work is challenged,” Owens said, after mentioning that the newest doctor on her staff has her office in a storage closet.

“One simple sneeze from an employee has been known to wipe out most of our entire team,” Owens joked, before saying the “capacity challenges endanger our offices ability to conduct medicolegal death investigations in a compassionate and timely manner while fulfilling our statutory obligations outlined by the state of Idaho.”

“Today, that starts to change,” she said minutes before the groundbreaking.

Much of Ada County’s population growth has shifted to the west of Boise. The new Meridian facility will be more centrally located, and situated closer to Interstate 84 and other major roadways that link different parts of the county.

The estimated cost of the new coroner’s building is $35 million. Ada County commissioners in 2019 voted to create a fund for acquiring the land and building the facility. Two of the current commissioners, Rod Beck and Ryan Davidson, were not in office at the time.

“While we may have had some issues with the financing, we have no issues with the need for the facility. I believe the coroner’s office provides a very valuable service to the citizens of the community,” Beck said. “The coroner deals with families, families of the deceased. It’s going to be great to have not only a facility that will enable the coroner to do the work they have to do on the deceased, but also to have a proper facility for the families to say goodbye to their loved ones.”

Ada County’s population growth isn’t the only challenge the coroner and her team of forensic pathologists and investigators have faced in recent years. Commissioner Kendra Kenyon mentioned that they have “not only endured COVID and helping families with the tragic loss of their loved ones day in and day out, but also with the opioid epidemic and homicide spikes, all in subpar facilities.”

Owens said the new coroner’s facility in Meridian has been specifically planned and designed for the needs of Ada County’s communities.

“Countless evenings, nights and weekends were spent conducting research, speaking to outside facilities around the country with similar demographics,” Owens said, adding that data on average caseloads, staffing needs and projected populations for comparable areas around the country were factors in planning and designing Ada County’s new facility.

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