EDMOND — In a couple of years or so from now, if everything goes as planned, bodies will be delivered for autopsies to the medical examiner's office new headquarters at the southeast corner of the University of Central Oklahoma.
The site now is a parking lot.
The start of construction on the 48,000-square-foot building moved a key step closer Thursday.
In a quick meeting, the Oklahoma Council of Bond Oversight voted to reauthorize the sale of bonds to raise money for the $38.5 million project.
The council vote came two days after the Oklahoma Supreme Court rejected legal challenges to the project.
“It's been a long time coming,” said Preston Doerflinger, the state's finance secretary and a member of the council. “It is appropriate and necessary.”
Doerflinger said the medical examiner's office currently “is doing great work in a subpar facility.” He said he was thankful Supreme Court justices “took the action that they did to clear the way for us to take action.”
Behind the delay
The council approved the project in January but it had not moved forward because of the legal protests. That earlier approval had expired.
The medical examiner's office is responsible for investigating sudden, violent, unexpected and suspicious deaths. Much of the work at the medical examiner's office involves autopsies that are crucial to murder cases and important to families wanting answers about why their loved ones died.
It lost its national accreditation in 2009, in part because its main headquarters south of the Capitol in Oklahoma City is a small, outdated facility.
In May 2012, bodies sent to the Oklahoma City office had to be kept in refrigerated trucks until a 42-year-old cooler could be repaired.
The new building is to go up on university property just north of a fire station on Second Street. The site is northeast of the Edmond Area Chamber of Commerce and across the street from a Starbucks coffee shop.
The building will be within walking distance of the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation's forensics laboratory and the university's own Forensic Science Institute.
The university will own the property initially and lease it to the state for as long as 30 years. Payments on a 30-year lease would be about $2.4 million a year.
The medical examiner's office already has $2.5 million in appropriated funds to make the first year's lease payment, officials said.
Plenty of details need to be worked out, and other problems could come up.
“They say construction's about 720 days,” the state's chief medical examiner, Dr. Eric Pfeifer, said after the vote. “That's from the shovel in the ground to occupation. I've learned enough in the last two years to know that until groundbreaking occurs — and even after that — there's always some hurdles. But we're going to keep up the good fight until we're in the proper facility.”
The project is being done through a funding program involving the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education. The so-called master lease program usually involves more traditional campus projects like construction of new classrooms, residence halls and parking garages.
Critics complained that building a new medical examiner's office was a misuse of the higher education funding program. Critics suggested it will pave the way for legislators to have other pet projects built through the same program.
The university contended the project qualified for the master lease program because extensive interaction is expected between the medical examiner's office and the OSBI lab and the university's forensic science program.
The bonds could be issued in as little as 60 to 90 days.
The location of the building means students at times might see the delivery of bodies as they walk to classes.
“We can understand that coroner wagons will be coming through, that that will be part of having a facility,” said Kevin Freeman, UCO interim vice president for administration.
“Where it sits on our campus allows for easy ingress and egress off of Second Street so that there's minimal coming through campus. We have confidence that that's all done in a discreet way and wouldn't present any concerns.”
The estimated cost includes $33,132,000 for construction, $800,000 for furnishings and $3,231,000 for equipment.