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Facility moved to reduce travel times for law enforcement, other officials investigating deaths.

The Okaloosa County Commission has approved a non-binding resolution to build a new District One Medical Examiner’s (DOMES) office facility in Santa Rosa County. 

The current DOMES facility at Sacred Heart Hospital in Pensacola is inadequate and cannot accommodate the professional space needed, according to a briefing to the Okaloosa County Board of County Commissioners in their Tuesday, April 4th meeting.

Since 1998 The Sacred Heart Hospital in the District has been home to the DOMES facility, serving as the primary location for autopsies, handling deceased individuals, and related services.

The report says the current facilities have reached their breaking point and paints a dire need to upgrade.

The number of autopsies conducted in 2001 was 675, but today, that number has nearly doubled to 1,375. The population in the District has also increased by over 27%, more than 173,000 since 2001.

According to the same report, in some weeks, the number of bodies arriving equals the amount of cooler space available, leading to climate control challenges, overcrowding, and sanitation issues. Moreover, the current facilities lack adequate separation for infectious disease or decomposition cases and create a chain of custody issues for homicide cases. On top of these issues, much of the space is currently shared, including the cooler space, autopsy space, and transport space to funeral homes. Other hospital functions must also be carried out in or through the space, creating additional logistical challenges.

The current DOMES facility is located inside Sacred Heart Hospital and has not been updated since the late nineties. In that time, the number of autopsies the examiner performs per year has effectively doubled. 

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It ai'nt cheap: costs for a new facility in Santa Rosa County

The proposal was put forward to build a new facility on a reduced scale of around 17,000 to 20,000 square feet, though it was designed to be expandable. Elected officials had previously rejected a more grandiose facility.

With the current proposal, the total estimated cost of the project is between $16 and $18 million, and the project will be built on five acres of a nine-acre plot purchased by the Santa Rosa County Board of County Commissioners. 

The new location is located about five miles from the Escambia County line, according to the proposal.

The deal proposes each county will pay an initial $750,000, followed by $1,500 per autopsy as a capital facility fee. Okaloosa County’s annual debt service costs, as a part of the project, are expected to be less than $450,000 per year at $1,500 per autopsy. 

The project budget calls for $18 million in total from all counties, including $3 million in county contributions, $500,000 in current state legislative appropriation, $1.5 million in requested legislative appropriation, and potential funding of $13 million in debt funding.

If the four counties’ boards can’t agree on a plan, the county risks losing legislative funding and potential departures of the medical examiner, which could increase the complexity and costs of providing medical examiner services in the long term.

The proposed project is premised on at least three counties participating. The final approval will include an interlocal agreement with the finalized project size, borrowed funds/terms, and capital facility fees.

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