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Austin sings the cemetery fund blues

Friday, May 18, 2018 by Jo Clifton

The Parks and Recreation Department, which is in charge of operations and management of the city’s five historic cemeteries, has suspended collection of money for the cemeteries’ perpetual care fund until the department can resolve some of the issues related to taking care of the cemeteries.

The purpose of the perpetual care fund is to ensure that the city has sufficient money to take care of gravesites at the city’s cemeteries in perpetuity.

Kimberly McNeeley, acting director of the parks department, has notified City Council that her department has started to examine challenges associated with the cemetery endeavor, including historically deficient record-keeping, antiquated city regulations and failure to follow those regulations.

McNeeley said that the department has begun to examine the fund as a result of community inquiries. Even though the fund currently has $1 million in it, McNeeley told the Austin Monitor the fund is clearly insufficient to properly care for the gravesites and the rest of the cemeteries.

McNeeley, who took over as acting director of the department in March 2017, sent a memo to Council last week explaining some of the questions the department will be attempting to answer as they complete what McNeeley calls “a full internal audit to account for records associated with (perpetual care fund) investments.”

According to the city’s website, shortly after Austin was founded in 1839, “the State of Texas deeded what is now known as Oakwood Cemetery to the city.” The other cemeteries include Austin Memorial Park Cemetery, Evergreen Cemetery, Oakwood Annex Cemetery and Plummers Cemetery. The website notes that burial spaces “are only available for purchase in Austin Memorial Park and Evergreen cemeteries.”

The parks department took over the management of the five cemeteries on Nov. 1, 1986, and used a contractor, InterCare Corp., for most cemetery functions, including sales, operations, maintenance and management, until March 2013.

In her memo, McNeeley states that a subcommittee of the parks board recommended “an alternative business model for maintenance and management” of the city’s historic cemeteries. As a result, the contract with InterCare Corp. was terminated and the department took over sales, operations and maintenance of the cemeteries, but contracted out the interment “and monument-setting functions of cemetery operations.”

When it took over direct management of the cemeteries, city staff “uncovered a number of operational and administrative challenges that not only required thorough research, but also required the development and implementation of new processes and procedures in accordance with” current laws and industry practices, according to McNeeley.

Those many challenges prevented PARD from addressing the perpetual care fund issue until now, she wrote.

Some of the challenges facing city staff in trying to make decisions about the perpetual care fund include historically deficient record-keeping and lack of a structure for accounting for monies dedicated to specific plots.

McNeeley told the Monitor that the city has “shoddy records” that cover the entire life of the cemeteries. The city does not know who has contributed and in what amounts. In addition, she said, “We don’t exactly know legally how to use the fund and who’s contributed to the fund,” but she said the city is dedicated to taking care of the cemeteries and the fund “in a way that’s honorable.”

As the Monitor reported in 2014, the city had its own problems in dealing with cemetery lots. The Office of the City Auditor found five instances between April 2013 and June 2014 in which Cemetery Operations Group staff sold the same plot of land to two different people. In one case, auditors found that the cemetery group manager had “signed two deeds on the same day, selling the same plot of land to two different people.”

McNeeley said the department would do a full internal audit to identify who has invested in the perpetual care fund, the amounts invested and the contractual maintenance obligations agreed upon with regards to those investments.

She emphasized that Austin Memorial Park and Evergreen Cemetery are open for business, but they are not accepting or requiring money for the perpetual care fund.

Dale Flatt, founder of a citizen group called Save Austin’s Cemeteries, told the Monitor, “The city cemeteries were never designed” by today’s standards “to be perpetual or endowment cared.”

At private cemeteries, such as Cook-Walden, he said, “when you buy a grave space, a portion of your sales goes into a trust account called a perpetual or endowment care fund. The logic behind that is – on average you get 1,000 burials per acre. By the time you sell 1,000 burials, you should have enough money in a fund to care for that land in perpetuity. You should be able to maintain that acre of land.”

“However, the city is not required to do that,” Flatt said. But, “in 1912 the city created a property tax of 2.5 cents per hundred dollars ad valorem tax for the care of the cemeteries. And that money went into a fund.” The city stopped collecting that money quite some time ago, Flatt said, opting instead “to put a small amount of money from every grave sale into the fund.” But the money is insufficient. He concluded, “A cemetery lot is the only piece of property that you sell once but you’re expected to maintain forever.”

Photo courtesy of the city of Austin.

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