Why Travis County is outgrowing its medical examiner’s office

In the building that houses Travis County’s morgue, it’s hard to find a room that doesn’t double as storage.

Case files are stored in hallways and the conference room. Two of the Travis County Forensic Center’s three original janitor’s closets are storage, and chemicals that used to be kept in a closet next to the laboratory were moved out to make room for the office of two forensic toxicologists.

County officials, including the medical examiner’s office, are planning a new site for the morgue that handled about 1,600 autopsies last year from Travis, Williamson, Hays and 40 other counties as far west as Ward County near New Mexico and as far south as Refugio County near the Gulf Coast. For many smaller counties, it’s cheaper to contract with a larger county for occasional autopsies than build their own facility, and the revenue is welcome in Travis County. The medical examiners, investigators and chemists here need enough space to do the job, though.

Officials will recommend a site by the end of February and expect to have a $27 million facility, three times the size of the current one, open in three years.

“The reception room wasn’t always this cozy,” said the county’s chief medical examiner, Dr. David Dolinak, stretching out his arms to show it’s not much wider than his roughly six-foot armspan.

When the building was built in 1997, the third-floor reception room was at least twice the size. But as the medical examiner’s workload grew and staffing increased, they had to move walls and squeeze out more office space. Now, it’s a cramped room with five chairs and a small table to greet the office’s visitors: funeral directors, relatives looking for a copy of an autopsy report and organ-donor organization representatives, to name a few. If those visitors need to use the restroom, they have to be escorted past a secure door.

“It’s uncomfortable and an invasion of privacy,” the office’s chief administrative officer, Sarah Scott, said.

When this office opened 16 years ago, the chief medical examiner at the time said it was an upgrade from the “medieval conditions” of the basement of Brackenridge Hospital, which is now known as University Medical Center Brackenridge. The 14,400 square-foot building cost $3.5 million.

Squeezed onto a city-owned lot near Brackenridge on little-known Sabine Street, the existing facility was not built for the department’s growing size that comes with a growing workload, said Danny Hobby, the county executive for emergency services. Officials at the time had only a half-acre lot to work with and built a facility on a tight budget that didn’t plan for much growth, Hobby said. A 2011 consultant report about the facility projects a 50 percent increase in staffing in the next 30 years, meaning they’ll need considerably more space for those people to work in.

The eight parking spaces aren’t even enough for the office’s 37 employees, let alone visitors. Most staffers, including Dolinak, park a couple blocks away at a satellite lot.

Commissioners last month earmarked $2.2 million to design and plan the new facility. An ideal site would be on three acres in a commercial or industrial area along a major street with easy access during rush hour and near the future University of Texas medical school downtown, Hobby said.

The medical examiner’s office, with a $4.4 million budget last year, raised about $1.9 million from the 738 autopsies it performed for other counties, nearly half the office’s total workload. Williamson, Brazos and Victoria are the most common customers, Hobby said.

While the equipment is up to par and doctors and investigators are able to do their work in the building, the space is constraining, Scott said. The building’s only conference room, large enough for a table with eight swivel chairs where the six doctors have their meetings about the day’s cases, is packed with case files, old computers and other stored items. It also hosts the staff’s holiday party and can be a private space for grief counseling.

“We’ve milked a lot of different purposes out of this room,” Dolinak said.

When the newest doctor arrived, crews cut into another person’s office to create a second room, long and awkward with two different types of ceilings.

The toxicology lab has much of the state-of-the-art equipment most facilities have, but in terms of space, “we’re on the lower end,” said chief toxicologist Brad Hall, who inspects such labs of a member of the American Board of Forensic Toxicologists.

Unlike the rest of the building, the bottom-floor morgue has escaped subdividing or the intrusion of storage. The main autopsy room has a observation room with just enough space for five chairs and a computer.

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