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Medical examiner seeking new state-of-the-art facility

STORY BY RAY MCNULTY (Week of November 4, 2021)

The medical examiner for the four-county region that includes 32963 is seeking a new, state-of-the-art facility to meet the growing demands on her office as a result of the steady influx of new residents flocking to the communities she serves.

Dr. Patricia Aronica, medical examiner for the 19th Judicial District, said the existing facility – located on Indian River State College’s main campus in Fort Pierce – is too small, ill-equipped and outdated to accommodate the agency’s needs.

Aronica was hired in May 2020 and moved from Baltimore to take the job upon the retirement of Dr. Roger Mittleman, who served as the Treasure Coast’s medical examiner for nearly 20 years.

Not only does the facility lack the space needed to store bodies in a dignified way, she said, but there’s also not enough room for new employees, an ever-increasing number of files, or separate areas to conduct autopsies.

“The bottom line is we have outgrown this building,” Aronica told members of the Indian River, St. Lucie and Martin county commissions during a joint meeting at the college last week.

In addition, she said the building is sorely in need of upgrades and repairs to provide a safe, healthy work environment for staffers, who are currently enduring roof leaks, coolers that spray aluminum oxide and chiller-fan shutdowns.

Rather than spend money restoring and expanding a building built in the 1970s, Aronica asked the commissioners – along with their counterparts in Okeechobee County – to help fund the construction of a new building, preferably on the college’s campus.

College President Timothy Moore endorsed Aronica’s request, saying the building that currently houses the Medical Examiner’s Office on his campus is “at the end of its service life.”

He said the college’s Board of Trustees wants to keep the facility on campus – there’s available land adjacent to the Treasure Coast Public Safety Training Complex – and would embrace any efforts to seek state grants and other funding for the project.

“The college is here to support,” Moore told the commissioners. “I’ll bring my team together to ensure that this remains a viable asset to our law enforcement and medical community.”

Moore estimated the cost of building a new facility at $800 per square foot, which would push the total price into the $15 million range. But he suggested the commissioners “start small” and begin the process by providing Aronica’s office with the funds to hire a firm to produce a conceptual design.

“Financing a new facility isn’t easy,” Aronica said, adding that she has been searching for grants and communicating with the governor’s office, but has come up empty.

Indian River County Commission Chairman Joe Flescher, who presided over the annual Tri-County Meeting, said the individual commissions must approve any funding for the project, including that needed for the initial planning expenses.

He also recommended the counties enlist the help of the Treasure Coast’s state legislators and make a joint pitch for any available state funds to build a new facility, which he said was “very necessary.”

Aronica said a new building would allow her to provide proper storage facilities for decedents’ bodies and enough autopsy rooms to handle an increasing case load.

She said her office this year had handled 130 cases more than it had at this time last year, and she expects that trend to continue as the region’s population increases.