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Decision sought on mobile morgue

Chief Deputy Craig Baker has three reasons to add a mobile morgue to the Clay County Sheriff's Department's fleet of 36 vehicles. It will save money long term, provide a dignified way to transport the deceased and will better preserve evidence, h...

Chief Deputy Craig Baker has three reasons to add a mobile morgue to the Clay County Sheriff's Department's fleet of 36 vehicles.

It will save money long term, provide a dignified way to transport the deceased and will better preserve evidence, he said.

But a mobile morgue capable of carrying up to four bodies could cost up to $38,000, and Clay County commissioners recently trimmed $935,000 from the county's $18.3 million budget in response to state funding cuts.

"It's a pretty significant expense," said Commissioner Ben Brunsvold. "It may be this is just an urgent need. I am going to wait and see what the rest of the discussion is."

Twenty-seven of the department's 29 full-time deputies are assigned vehicles.


Those make up only part of the sheriff's fleet, which includes several specialty vehicles.

The department owns two four-wheelers, two snowmobiles, four boats, nine trailers for hauling equipment and one disaster-response trailer.

"We get called to do all sorts of things and are expected to do whatever needs to be done," Baker said. "If we don't have the equipment we need, we try and go out and find it."

To transport bodies, the county currently uses a Dodge extended cab pickup with a topper.

The Clay County Sheriff's Department spent $153,000 this year on replacing seven squad cars -- part of a policy to rotate the cars out of its fleet every three years -- and equipping them with computers, radar guns and lights. That money came from the county's $1.7 million internal service fund, an account for replacing vehicles.

The department also plans to spend $120,000 of its $2.76 million budget for repairs and fuel in 2003.

Mobile morgue

Commissioners have been talking about purchasing a mobile morgue for a month. They asked Sheriff Bill Bergquist to present several alternatives.


Options that Bergquist explored ranged from placing a portable refrigeration unit in the back of a pickup -- which Lt. Jerome Thorson said would require at least four people to haul -- to using funeral homes to transport bodies to St. Paul, which could cost up to $900 a trip plus expenses.

Clay County sends an average of 20 bodies a year to St. Paul for autopsies. In each of the past two years, the Sheriff's Department devoted $31,785 to coroner services, including transportation and autopsy costs.

In 2002, the five surrounding counties sent 33 bodies for autopsies: Wilkin and Mahnomen, 10 each; Becker, nine; Otter Tail, three; and Norman, one.

While Clay officials haven't contacted those counties to discuss sharing costs, it's an idea worth exploring, Thorson said.

Commissioners have asked the Sheriff's Department to give them more information in July, but Baker doesn't know what information there is left to collect.

"I think it is time to decide something," Baker said. "We have investigated the possibilities. We have looked at different ways of doing this. We came up with what we thought was the best technology for doing this, a dignified way of doing it and an idea for funding."

The county could use $46,600 from the sale of seven squad cars this year to purchase the mobile morgue, Baker said.If the commission chooses not to buy a mobile morgue, the money will return to the county's internal service fund.

Baker believes the commission is sympathetic but can't get over the cost.


"They are having some difficulty spending this money when they are cutting on the other end," he said. "I understand that. This couldn't have come along at a worse time."

Surrounding counties

None of Clay County's six neighbors own a mobile morgue, but those counties also don't transport as many bodies to St. Paul.

Wilkin, Becker and Otter Tail counties contract with local funeral homes or ambulance services. In Otter Tail, the cost is about $500 per trip.

Becker County Sheriff Tim Gordon spent $4,500 last year to transport nine bodies to St. Paul. He said the funeral home charges the county $1 per mile, but the system works.

"For us, purchasing a mobile morgue would be cost prohibitive," Gordon said.

Mahnomen and Norman counties transport bodies in regular vehicles.

"We have had no problems or complaints from the medical examiner," said Mahnomen County Sheriff Brad Athmann.


Most unattended deaths and those involving people killed in auto accidents or in a suspicious manner require autopsies, sheriff's officials said.

The Clay County Sheriff's Department is responsible for transporting bodies for autopsies.

Most of the time, Clay deputies take the body to St. Paul immediately after responding to the accident. There are few other options. Bodies could be stored at a local funeral home, but that costs money.

"Our solution was to try and design a vehicle that would solve all the problems and only have to handle the body one time," Baker said.

The county should purchase a mobile morgue because it makes sense, said George Korsmo, owner of Korsmo Funeral Service in Moorhead. The county has retained Korsmo for some services in the past.

"I'm 100 percent supportive," he said. "Keeping the body cooler longer is just a significant improvement in the care and treatment of human remains."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Jeff Baird at (701) 241-5535

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