Knox County officials are putting the final touches on a plan that will lead to the development of a new regional forensic center designed to perform autopsies and provide crucial investigative information to law enforcement throughout East Tennessee.
The operation, which will relocate from the University of Tennessee Medical Center to a former surgery center on Sullins Street near downtown, should be up and running by this time next year.
In the meantime, the county has already brought current Medical Examiner Darinka Mileusnic and her 18-person staff under its umbrella.
The move comes as UT officials told the county in the fall that it needed the space and because University Pathologists PC, a non-profit branch of the university that staffed the medical examiner's office, is getting out of the autopsy business.
The contract with UPPC ended Nov. 30, and the lease with UT ends Dec. 31, 2014.
However, the county operation more than likely would have moved anyway.
Its current 9,000-square foot facility opened in the late 1990s and is no longer big enough to handle the ever increasing caseloads, nor does it always have enough room to preserve bodies.
The new facility, which cost $1 million, is roughly 18,000-square feet. The county also plans to spend another $4.25 million renovating it.
"This is going to serve the greater good of the whole region, and it will be a top-line facility," said Knox County Commission Chairman Brad Anders. "If there's a chargeable crime, you want to have the something like this – you want to have the best practice you can find, and having a regional approach will just make it a better fit."
The county's charter requires Knox County to employ a medical examiner, but the state asked the county to consider operating a facility for the entire region. Knox County leaders in September asked Gov. Bill Haslam to include $5 million in his budget for next year to renovate the new facility. They should have an answer in the next month or so.
If the county doesn't get the money, then local leaders say they have several options. They can build a smaller facility to serve only Knox County, or they can take out a short-term, low interest loan to pay for it.
At this point, though, they're not too concerned. The state in 2001 gave Davidson County $5 million for a similar center and $5 million to Shelby County for one several years ago, so local leaders expect to get some money.
In addition, the county plans to contract with another 20 or so surrounding counties, and Knox County Finance Director Chris Caldwell said officials are currently meeting with other regional leaders to iron out the details.
But, the new operation will cost Knox County more money to run.
The county's contract with UPPC for years was set at $1.04 million. Now, with everything under its purview, the center will probably cost about $280,000 more a year "in a worst case scenario," according to Caldwell.
"We were paying really low for that contract," he added. "So, we know the costs are going to increase, but it might not be that much."
Still, Mileusnic will become the highest paid county employee at about $330,000 annually.
Caldwell, though, said the county is on the hook for about $120,000 of it. The surrounding counties that use the center will pick up the rest through fees charged for the office's services.
"This is something new for us, so we're budgeting as we go," he said.
Caldwell added that overall revenues also could increase as the demand increases, so the county could eventually make a profit from the center.
The center oversaw 700 procedures, including autopsies and cremations, for Knox County last year. It also performed 337 autopsies for surrounding counties.
The medical examiner will continue to operate out of the University until the move late next year.