A sudden influx of decomposed bodies to the Kane County morgue -- and their odor -- may become the latest driver for a facility upgrade that's been stymied by politics and price in recent years.
Nine dead bodies in advanced stages of decomposition have come to the morgue in the last three weeks. The facility has room for only two bodies in its freezer, which also stores in perpetuity DNA evidence from local homicides.
Kane County Coroner Rob Russell has worked out a deal with DuPage County officials to store some of the bodies at their morgue. But there has still been some need to keep bodies in coolers.
Like most refrigerators, the coolers don't eliminate the odor created by decomposing tissue.
"The smells are unbelievable," said Don Biggs, Kane County's executive director of facilities. "I can tell you from experiencing what I only experienced for 10 minutes over there that I wouldn't want to work in that building.
"If the coroner's employees were working for me, I would not let them in that building. That's how bad it is. It's disgusting."
Russell first called for a new morgue soon after taking office in 2012. That's a vision not shared by county board Chairman Chris Lauzen, and the two have waged political battles ranging from Russell's purchase of promotional items for his office to the number of autopsies performed.
Lauzen has even backed candidates seeking to unseat Russell. The politics kept Russell's desire for a new facility at the bottom of the county's capital projects list for years.
Calls for a new facility have renewed with the recent odor problem that has prompted Russell's staff to light candles and use deodorizing equipment. The stench was so bad that county employees in a neighboring building complained.
"We have had an excess of decomposed bodies in the past few weeks," Chief Deputy Coroner Loren Carrera said. "We do autopsies three days a week. If you walk in the building, you will smell it. And the odors started coming outside."
The building housing the morgue was not built with that use in mind. It served as the laundry for the religious seminary that once owned the Geneva-based property. Biggs said it would not be wise to upgrade the building because of its inherent limitations.
That leaves a couple of other possibilities.
Russell wants the county to relocate him to the building used by animal control on Keslinger Road in Geneva. Biggs said retrofitting that building for a morgue would cost about $2 million. And the county would still need to find space for animal control.
County board member Drew Frasz suggested adding a building for the morgue at the county judicial center in St. Charles. That's what the county's master plan envisions. Such a building might also include storage space for the sheriff and/or space for vehicle maintenance.
That plan might cost $4 million, in Frasz's estimate. That cash could come from selling the 40 acres along Fabyan Parkway in Geneva where the old county jail sat. There are minimal county operations there now.
"We're way behind on this coroner's building, and these things take years to get done," Frasz said. "We've got to get going. When someone comes to the coroner's office, they are having the worst day of their life. It's just ridiculous where we ask them to come to identify a body right now."
Not every county board member is ready to spend big money.
Bill Lenert, who may be Lauzen's closest county board ally, joined Lauzen in suggesting exploration of a shared-cost freezer facility or a freezer truck with DuPage County. Lauzen also called for a professional appraisal of the Fabyan property to see if selling it would raise enough cash to build a new morgue.
Russell is working with a private company to create a design for what a new morgue should include and may cost. There was no immediate solution suggested for dealing with the odor problem.