Designer unveils plans for county’s new $21 million coroner facility

A rendering of the county’s new coroner and autopsy facility.

The county’s new medical examiner facility will come with conference rooms, observation areas, a small contemplative garden and cameras for observing autopsies. And as architects previewed the facility on Thursday, they also pledged that the body deliveries would be shielded from the nearby neighborhood with berms and a secure delivery enclosure.

“Really at no time should the public have any observation of certain goings on, if you will, of the building,” said Mike Schaadt, principal of PGAV Architects.

Ground breaking on the new building, which has a $21 million budget, is on track and expected to take place Dec. 13. The building is expected to open in mid 2020.

The facility will be paid with proceeds from a quarter-cent sales tax add-on approved by voters in 2016 as part of an overall project that includes the new county courthouse. It was proposed as a way to modernize the county’s autopsy and coroner operations. The county has been outsourcing autopsy work to other area labs and has contracted with an on-call coroner in the past. The new facility is designed with the technology to do higher-level forensics with more protection for technicians and observers.

That will mean an overhaul of staffing as well. Kansas law requires each county to have a coroner. But Johnson County wants to move toward a medical examiner status, said Lougene Marsh, director of the county health department. The National Academy of Sciences in 2009 recommended abolishing the coroner system, used by Kansas and 11 other states. Coroners can be elected or appointed and are not necessarily medical doctors, though Johnson County’s is.

So in Johnson County, the coroner will also carry the medical examiner title. The commission recently appointed Dr. Diane C. Peterson, the Jackson County medical examiner, to an assistant coroner position. That will end in January, when the coroner contract with Dr. Robert Prosser expires. After that, Peterson will become chief medical examiner/coroner and Prosser will continue as a deputy coroner. Peterson has been Jackson County’s medical examiner since 2016.

The staff of eight also will include toxicologists, a medical death investigator, autopsy technicians and administrative staff.

The presentation at the county commission showed a 32,977-square-foot building with a glassed-in public entrance that gives way to secure areas for staff and lab work. Other sides of the building will be more opaque and the facility will have a perimeter fence.

Schaadt said deliveries will take place inside a “sallyport,” which is a garage-like enclosure within the secured area. There will be two conference rooms, one with 40 seats and a medical conference area with 14 seats, he said.

The facility, which will be next to the county crime lab and other county buildings on Sunset Drive in Olathe, also will be shielded from nearby neighbors with landscaping and berms, which the county promises to keep well maintained.

Energy efficiency also will be incorporated into the design. The county has no plans to incur the additional expense of LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, but Schaadt said it will be green enough that it could qualify. However it will not include solar panels on the roof because of the cost of initial investment, he said.

Construction costs are higher on the coroner lab than on the courthouse primarily because of special mechanical requirements, he said. The lab will need an air circulation system that inhibits the spread of microbes, for instance.

Commissioners are scheduled to set the guaranteed maximum price with McCarthy Building Companies Nov. 15.