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A new morgue in Billings should be operational by the end of the year, promising long-term savings to the public, a more efficient autopsy process for Eastern Montana and major work-life upgrades for the small staff squeezed into the windowless facility.

A request for proposals for the new morgue opened in January and will close April 2. There’s no set timeline for the project, but officials hope to be using the new facility by October.

“We’d love it done tomorrow, so we’ll push to try and make it done as fast as possible,” said Scott Larson, director of the State Crime Lab.

Those familiar with the morgue at St. Vincent Healthcare, which the state pays usage fees to operate out of, say a new facility is sorely needed — particularly additional square footage.

But the new morgue won’t be flashy, as Dr. Robert Kurtzman, the state’s chief medical examiner, is quick to point out. There’s $950,000 to spend — $150,000 from Yellowstone County and the rest from the state.

“It’s going to be done in a way that’s very utilitarian and mindful of taxpayer dollars,” Kurtzman said. “We’re not going overboard.”

Kurtzman has toured at least one building in Billings that could be suitably retrofitted but declined to discuss potential sites with the bidding process still open. The state has spoken with Billings Clinic and St. Vincent about space, as well as to real estate agents eyeing private buildings, previous State Crime Lab Director Phil Kinsey told The Billings Gazette last year. 

The state plans to sign a 20-year lease on the new morgue.

The goal is to house the Billings crime lab and morgue under one roof, like they are in Missoula. The Eastern Montana crime lab, which launched in May 2016, leases space from Billings Clinic at 1045 N. 30th St.

That’s the ideal scenario, Larson said. If the bids don’t support that plan, the crime lab will remain in its current location and the morgue will move, and expand, separately.

Regardless, the upgrade will include office space for Kurtzman and an assistant, whose offices are located in the Department of Justice Building on South 27th Street, two miles away.

The new plan also calls for three work stations instead of the current one, allowing for multiple autopsies to be performed at once.

Demand ebbs and flows, but Kurtzman has done as many as five autopsies in a single day. Because the freezer has room for only three gurneys, space is at a premium.

The room can get cramped during autopsies, said Yellowstone County Chief Deputy Coroner Cliff Mahoney — especially in a case like a high-profile homicide, where Kurtzman, an assistant, a county coroner, police detectives and even a county attorney might all crowd in.

The new facility will also provide additional storage space for bodies awaiting an autopsy, with the purchase of a new racked cooler system that will initially store 10 bodies, and could hold as many as 25 in the future, if the state purchases extra trays.

The county pays local funeral homes to transport bodies to and from autopsies, and to store the bodies when no space is available at St. Vincent.

The homes charge a flat $250 per transport. The daily storage fees range from $45 to $90, and each home provides the first day for free.

The funeral homes are used on a weekly rotation basis, and the county is working to purchase a vehicle large enough to transport bodies so that it no longer has to rely on funeral homes. 

The new morgue is expected to save Yellowstone County $50,000 a year, according to county estimates, so the county’s contribution to the project should pay for itself in a few years, county commissioners estimate. 

The Billings morgue is a no-frills operation compared to many in the U.S.

A morgue serving a population of 500,000 should have 9,750 square feet of space, according to averages of 31 facilities accredited by the National Association of Medical Examiners. 

The Billings morgue serves a population of 350,000 and has less than 1,000 square feet. The bid for the new facility calls for 4,300 square feet.

Kurtzman said he and others who use the morgue at St. Vincent are looking forward to the change.

“We’re all very excited,” he said. “It needed to happen.”

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Justice Reporter

Justice reporter for the Billings Gazette.