JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The disturbing scene unfolding at the Duval County morgue may improve soon.
If the Jacksonville City Council approves a new bill, the critical work that the medical examiner’s office does daily may soon get back on track.
After a series of reports from the News4Jax I-TEAM, the mayor’s office announced plans to file a bill, which would get the medical examiner more money and more space, on Thursday.
The City Council must now vote to approve the funding. If it does, the medical examiner would get critical new workspace for staffers and a cooler able to hold an additional 40 bodies.
The News4JAX I-TEAM in November was the first to report that overcrowding had reached critical mass, after obtaining internal emails detailing a troubling scene: Bodies were being stacked, one body was placed on the floor and there were no more trays to perform simple autopsies.
News4Jax also reported in April that the morgue was cramped while covering an influx of deaths to the opioid crisis.
During a finance committee meeting on Thursday, Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Valerie Rao explained the problem has not improved.
"We are still doing cases from 2017, and we are on the 4th of January, so we have had to hold those cases because we have no trays," Rao said. "This is a problem, not with opioids. The population of Duval (County) has just skyrocketed and we have got to accept that."
The I-TEAM also learned that the new bill drafted by the city would provide $206,000 to help the medical examiner's office. Of that funding, $26,325 would be used for a mobile office, $86,880 for an outdoor walk-in morgue cooler and $87,775.12 for morgue equipment, as well as other associated costs.
Chief Administrative Officer Sam Mousa, with the mayor’s office, told the finance committee that the administration also wants to research building a new office.
"We are going to take action in the next couple of years in developing a new facility," Mousa said.
City Councilman Danny Becton, who represents District 11, said he's not convinced there is a long-term problem, and wants more data.
"We have gotten a lot of emails that we should’ve saw this coming and that we should’ve been clairvoyant anticipating this," Becton said. "Ever since that finance committee meeting in December, I have gotten a spreadsheet from (the medical examiner). But, once again ... It's nothing that I can see that you can draw a conclusion of what their needs are."
Other council members said the capacity problem has been going on for years.
"I think, long before the opioid crisis became an issue, it was obvious to me that facility was tired," said City Councilman Bill Gulliford, who represents District 13. "The layout was bad. The location probably could be improved."
Rao said, despite any political disagreements on what her office needs, she is grateful for the administration's support to help the community.
"We are the last responders, but we are very important. Every decedent there has a family that loves them, so we have to put ourselves in the situation that, maybe, we will in one day be in that position, so how would we feel if our loved one was not being cared for in a timely fashion?" Rao said.
The administration is asking the City Council to pass the bill immediately, once its introduced, to get the cooler and mobile unit to the medical examiner’s office as soon as possible.