Richland Coroner says he needs space, but some balk at cost

dhinshaw@thestate.com September 18, 2013 

(From left) Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, Richland County C

(From left) Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott, Richland County Coroner Gary Watts

THE STATE

— Richland County Coroner Gary Watts is requesting $2.5 million for new office space less than four years after moving into a new, county-owned facility.

At least one member of Richland County Council said he’d like to explore alternatives to purchasing and up fitting a warehouse along Shakespeare Road as a replacement for Watt’s office in southeast Columbia.

Watts, who is forced to store evidence at the morgue and the courthouse basement in addition to his Pineview Road office, said he needs more space, because changes in state law now require he keep documents and some crime-scene evidence “for life.”

Storage issues are compounded by the fact that his caseload has increased nearly 30 percent since 2010, from an average of 190 cases a month to 279 cases a month this year.

Watts said his $2.5 million estimate includes buying a vacant warehouse, unfitting it and providing the cold storage necessary to preserve physical evidence.

“This is a long-term solution,” Watts said. “This is not a short-term fix.”

Now, Watts shares office space with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department victim services.

At a County Council meeting Tuesday night, some members questioned why the two want to split up, but both Watts and sheriff’s spokesman Chris Cowan said there’s no animosity.

Cowan said if the coroner moved, the Sheriff’s Department would use the space, though he wasn’t sure exactly how.

“Right now, we’ve got what we need,” he said. The Sheriff’s Department is “constantly growing with the population,” he added.

Still, Councilman Greg Pearce balked when the council was asked to vote on a $17.2 million loan for a laundry list of county expenditures – including the coroner’s request, which he said sounded high.

“In four years, we’ve outgrown an office?” he said.

Pearce said council members didn’t have the information they needed to make a good decision, and persuaded his colleagues to pull the coroner’s request from the loan package.

He also noted that the county has struggled for years with funding victims services, part of the Sheriff’s Department but funded separately by the county. “We’re trying to contain that program, not expand it,” he said.

Watts said he’ll meet Friday with county officials to provide more information on his request in hopes of winning support for the project.

Reach Hinshaw at (803) 771-8641.

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