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Commissioners to meet with property owner about possible coroner building

SUN-GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

The Lycoming County commissioners are slated to meet with the owner of a building they are considering purchasing to move the county coroner into.

The three commissioners will meet with Don Lundy to discuss purchasing the property in Newberry, which has a warehouse-like building, to end the nine-year search for a new home for Lycoming County Coroner Chuck Kiessling.

Kiessling cites limited space and lack of facilities for employees of his office to adequately wash clothes and vehicles, and shower after being out in the field, as hazardous factors to the health of the coroner’s office.

Commissioner Tony Mussare agrees the coroner needs a new building, but is reluctant to spend millions of dollars on it. According to Kiessling, the building’s appraised cost is less than $5 million.

Mussare said that two years ago, the county took out a $900,000 bond to help pay for the coroner’s building, in addition to Kiessling’s office budget.

“There were two buildings we could have put them in for under $900,000 but he refused them,” Mussare said. “We’ve looked at 10 properties for him, and nothing has really worked out.”

Kiessling said there were technical reasons, such as overhead space, lack of garage doors or space to pull out into the alleyway the building was adjacent to, that rendered one of those buildings unable to provide the coroner’s office with what it needs.

Mussare prioritizes affordability, as well as meeting the needs of the office. That includes a heated garage, shower facilities, bathrooms and a place for a cooler, among other needs.

“I’m in total agreement the coroner needs to have a home. It’s taken way too long. He’s working in very adverse conditions,” Commissioner Scott Metzger said.

Additionally, Kiessling is advocating for the eventual introduction of a forensic pathology facility at the new building, which would allow autopsies related to criminal incidents to occur locally, instead of requiring police and coroner personnel to travel to Allentown.

Metzger said he has not seen a clear need for the forensic center, however.

“Those numbers have not been put on my desk yet for a nine-county regional forensic autopsy center,” Metzger said.

Kiessling said his office has been preoccupied with processing increased deaths and has been unable to provide updated numbers since the 2012 study on a new building for his office. He said the forensic center is an eventual consideration, not an immediate need.

Commissioner Richard Mirabito agreed with Mussare’s concerns about cost.

“It has to be a project that stays within budgetary constraints of the county. We need to try to help solve this problem the coroner faces,” Mirabito said.

“I’m a small government kind of guy. We must be responsible for taxpayer money. We need to accomplish this at an affordable price,” Mussare said. “We can’t spend money lavishly.”

One idea Metzger and Mirabito have floated — which is agreeable to Kiessling — is to converge several county responsibilities within the Lundy building.

“It’d be a great opportunity to take care of many county needs for the long-term. This is something that would take care of different county departments for the next 40 to 50 years,” Metzger said.

Metzger said he would like the Lundy building to be used to house several different county entities, which would help reduce costs. Those entities, including District Judge Christian Frey’s office, a DUI center, central processing and more, would be able to pool money to help cover the cost of the building — if the building is bought for the right price.

“It’s not always easy to solve all the requirements we have in terms of satisfying the coroner and deal with some of the other issues we’re hoping to accomplish,” Mirabito said.

Since January, the Coroner’s office has handled 430 death investigations. The coroner’s office normally investigates 300-400 deaths in a single year, and last year due to COVID-19, the office reached into the 600s. This year, the office is set up to go from 600-700 deaths — and that number may begin picking up, according to Kiessling.

Kiessling anticipates an increase in COVID-related deaths due to a new wave introduced by the Delta Variant of the virus, as well as more cases stemming from UPMC Williamsport’s Trauma Level II Center.

Despite a recognized need, however, the commissioners are reluctant to commit to this building until talks are over.

“I wish this was the largest issue we face as Lycoming County Commissioners,” Mussare said. “And I will agree we have to provide him a facility but only if it’s one that’s affordable.”

“It also has to be economically responsible for the taxpayers,” Mirabito said.

“We understand the coroner’s frustration. I’m in total agreement this is long overdue, and we have to continue to work together and not against each other,” Metzger said.

He said the public will be updated after the negotiations, and the commissioners will make a decision “soon.”

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