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City cemeteries will soon see the light with new bond funding and event space

Thursday, December 6, 2018 by Jessi Devenyns

The city of Austin has operated cemeteries since 1839; however, it was only in 2013 that the Parks and Recreation Department assumed responsibility for cemetery operations, at which point the department made a few changes.

Despite funding challenges allowing for only 50 percent of the staff that the city originally allocated for cemeteries, the Parks and Recreation Department has managed to prioritize monument conservation, update aging cemetery infrastructure and work on an ordinance for new cemetery rules. More recently, it has undertaken the responsibility of shifting interments under its department and rehabilitating the Oakwood Chapel for use as an event space.

According to Assistant Parks and Recreation Director Anthony Segura at the Dec. 4 meeting of the Parks and Recreation Board, the chapel will be available for rent at the end of the first quarter of 2019. “The chapel is going to be utilized for weddings (or) anything that will be respectable for cemeteries … it will be more than just memorial services,” he said.

Parks and Recreation Acting Director Kimberly McNeeley noted that the department is still defining what an “appropriate event” looks like. She assured the parks board that she will bring the department’s suggestions for chapel use before the members in order to hear their input.

At the same time that the parks department is opening up this historic chapel to increase revenue for city cemeteries, McNeeley noted that among the bonds Austin residents passed this November, $2.5 million is for the cemeteries. “The good news is we have $2.5 million to make some improvements. The challenge is that $2.5 million may not be enough to address everything we need,” she said.

The cemetery master plan will serve as a guiding document for the department to prioritize repairs and improvements. In addition, part of the budget will be allocated to hiring staff and purchasing equipment to take interment services into the department.

Currently, Interment Services Inc. manages burial services for the city of Austin. On Nov. 28, the contractor signed a “three-year contract with the option of two one-year options,” explained Tonja Walls-Davis, a division manager with the parks department. This contract extension comes after Parks and Rec found itself in the unfavorable position of requesting a 120-day holdover period with ISI while it searched for bids to complete the three years of transition work required to bring interment and disinterment services in-house. The department did not receive a single bid – not even from ISI. The result was a forced contract renegotiation with the city’s 30-year veteran vendor.

Even with plans for the future of the cemeteries in flux, Board Chair Jane Rivera was optimistic, saying that the state of city cemeteries has come a long way since 2009 when cemeteries were funded by the perpetual fund which was running out of money and city land was headed toward disrepair. Still, she said, “I recognize there’s a long way to go.”

Photo of Oakwood Chapel courtesy of the city of Austin.

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