Beaufort County expects to begin building its first morgue in April.
The facility will be in the former Department of Disabilities and Special Needs building on Old Shell Road in Port Royal. The county-owned space also will house the Coroner's Office and the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office's Victim and Juvenile Services unit. The Department of Disabilities and Special Needs moved to Beaufort in February.
The $850,000 project includes some demolition and the renovation of the 6,300-square-foot building, according to county spokeswoman Joy Nelson. About two-thirds of the building will become office space for the coroner's eight employees and the Sheriff's Office employees. About 2,000 square feet will be used for the morgue.
Construction is expected to take about eight months.
The Coroner's Office currently works in a trailer on Shanklin Road in Burton.
Coroner Ed Allen, who was re-elected to a second four-year term in November, said the new space will be a major improvement and will provide more room to store records. It also will have space to properly store eight bodies.
"Working out of a trailer is not helpful to grieving family members and is not conducive to properly maintaining records," Allen said.
Bodies that require the coroner's attention are typically stored at Hilton Head Hospital, Beaufort Memorial Hospital or the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.
"They have been extremely supportive of the Coroner's Office throughout the past several years," Allen said of the hospitals, "but they have limited space at those facilities, and their priority is to be able to hold bodies for deaths that occur within the hospitals."
Some autopsies will be possible at the new morgue by a trained pathologist. Suspicious deaths and homicides will continue to be transferred to the medical examiner at MUSC.
Money for the project will come from six rounds of bond sales dating to 2002, Nelson said. The largest amounts, --$296,000 and $217,000 -- came from borrowing that Beaufort County Council approved in 2002 and 2005.
The new space couldn't come at a better time for the Coroner's Office, which in 2012 processed the most suicides and homicides in at least a decade. In all, the office received 1,105 calls for service last year, compared to 1,031 in 2011.
"It's being built for present needs, as well as future needs," Allen said of the new building.
The Coroner's Office also plans to hire another deputy coroner. Allen said he's reviewing applications for the position, which will pay between $32,000 and $35,000 a year.
The new hire will give the office a third person, including Allen and Deputy Coroner David Ott, who can gather evidence in the field after suspicious deaths, suicides and auto accidents.
Details about the Sheriff's Office plans for its space in the new office were not available Friday.
Follow reporter Casey Conley at twitter.com/IPBG_Casey.