The failure of a freezer at the Kane County coroner's office was an unfortunate "indignity" for the remains of people it contained, County Board Chairman Chris Lauzen said Wednesday. But while Lauzen appeared willing to pay for the unexpected repair job, Coroner Rob Russell said that might not be enough to avoid future mishaps.
Russell reported the Thanksgiving Day freezer failure to the county board and the media the day after it happened. The freezer malfunction resulted in a partial thawing of bodies whose deaths were under investigation. Russell took action, including authorizing about $3,500 in repairs, to avoid total corruption of the remains. But it was money he didn't have to spend.
Lauzen expressed more concern Wednesday about the possible damage to the county's image than the additional cost of the freezer repair.
"I grieve for the human beings that suffered the indignity," Lauzen said. "It has received national attention. I hope that is not what we get known for."
Lauzen said the county board will address the repair cost separate from a pending $88,000 budget supplement already pending to address cost overruns in Russell's office. There are $13,000 for repairs already in Russell's budget and additional money in the county's capital fund to cover the bill, Lauzen said. But Russell will have to explain what happened to up to four county board committees before accessing any of that cash.
That process is no different from what other county elected officials would have to endure for a budget overrun.
Russell said in an interview he alerted the media about the faulty freezer because of persistent budget disagreements with Lauzen and the county board during his first year in office.
"There has been an extreme amount of scrutiny to this budget for whatever reason," Russell said. "I'm OK with that, but if we're going to do that then I'm going to make sure there is no opportunity to miscommunicate how poor the facilities here are."
Russell said DuPage, DeKalb and Kankakee counties all have superior morgue facilities compared to Kane County.
"DuPage's facility is 20 years old, and it's still 20 years ahead of what we have," Russell said. "I'm operating out of a repurposed monastery garage or laundry facility."
Lauzen called on Russell to lay out exactly what facility repairs, replacements and upgrades he needs so they can be factored into future budget plans.
"It has been more than a year since we were all sworn into office," Lauzen said. "I think that is more than sufficient time to take an inventory of those needs."
Asked about his future needs, Russell said he will keep calling on the county board to build him an entire new facility.
"I'm not asking for the Taj Mahal," Russell said. "But if this incident with the freezer is taken as a black eye for the county, then let's fix the black eye. It's not about making the county look bad; it's about telling the truth. This office stinks."