I-TEAM: City knew about overcrowding at medical examiner's office

Emails show bodies at medical examiner's office have been kept on floor, racks

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The city of Jacksonville is silent on why it didn't act sooner to help the Duval County Medical Examiner's Office deal with what it's called "a dire lack of space."  

On Wednesday, the I-TEAM found documented proof that some in the city knew about the overcrowding at the medical examiner’s office before it had to put a body on the floor.

That disturbing admission came last week after the I-TEAM obtained internal emails, including one sent Monday from Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Valerie Rao to the Jacksonville City Council. That email also said bodies were on racks as there were no more trays and no more room to perform simple autopsies.

Through a records request, the I-TEAM found on Wednesday a February report from the Department of Public Works, which said, "The District 4 Medical Examiner’s Office has outgrown the space."

The report shows the city knew about the medical examiner's overcrowding problems before the office ran out of space and had to store a body on the floor. 

"During the past six months, the MEO had been at capacity several times just for the normal workload/processing space," the report said.

When the medical examiner's office is full, sometimes funeral homes and hospitals have to keep bodies longer. That is not the case right now.

The I-TEAM emailed all 19 council members, only one of whom would talk. City Councilman Garrett Dennis, who is the chair of the city's Finance Committee, said he didn't know the public works report existed. 

"This is my first time seeing this. It’s a little troubling to know that an in-depth report had been done, analyzing a new facility, and it was not brought to the forefront," Dennis said. "We are going to have a frank conversation to move this project up within the first or second year."

The I-TEAM asked Mayor Lenny Curry by email about money for a new building, but has not yet received a response. 

How can the city get a new medical examiner’s office?

One council member introduces a bill, asking for $16 million to fund a new building. Then, 10 council members and the mayor can approve funding, or 13 council members voting "yes," can approve the funding -- if the mayor disagrees.

Dennis said he is prepared to introduce legislation for a new building -- if it comes to that.

He added another example of finding money is the Liberty Street collapse.

Dennis said the money there for the medical examiner's office, one council person has to propose a bill. If they had the money today, the building could be complete in two years. 

The mayor could also draft legislation and have it introduced by the City Council president.

So far, there is a proposal from the medical examiner directly asking for a walk-in cooler to serve as an addition until the building is constructed. Right now, cost assessments are being done and will be revisited in January.

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