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Wednesday, February 17, 2021 by Sean Saldaña

PARD gives update on cemetery improvement plans

Last September, around 15 gravestones were vandalized with blue paint at Evergreen Cemetery in East Austin, the city’s first municipal graveyard for Black residents when it was founded in 1926.

Commenting on the event, Mayor Steve Adler tweeted that the attack was “incredibly sad, leaving many with overarching anger and fear. Most acutely felt by the Black community, this violates us all.”

The story drew national attention and just a few days after the vandalism occurred, the community rallied and held a vigil to honor those buried at the cemetery.

The event sparked a discussion about the security needs of city graveyards, and last month, in a memo to the mayor and City Council, Parks and Recreation Director Kimberly McNeeley provided an update.

According to the memo, “the gravestone restoration is in its final stages” and “each family impacted will be or has been notified of the restoration completion.”

It goes on to detail that in the last five years, there have been five major incidents of vandalism that have taken place on municipal graveyards. The events have included one burglary, one instance of monuments that were knocked over, and a handful of instances of defacing with graffiti including two separate occasions where Confederate monuments were vandalized.

Though the most noteworthy of these incidents have occurred in the past few years, reinvestment has been a goal of PARD for a while now. Under the 2018 bond program, Austin voters approved $149 million for the department $2.5 million of which has since been allocated to cemetery capital improvements.

Of that $2.5 million, almost half has been earmarked for road improvements, leaving $1.3 million for other things like signage and lighting.

The highest-expenditure estimates from the department include $267,673 for fencing at Austin Memorial Park, $170,413 for cameras at Oakwood Cemetery, and $170,170 for fencing at Evergreen Cemetery.

Additionally, the Cemetery Operations Division identified some other security opportunities that would need to be covered by the city’s General Fund on an ongoing basis. According to the estimates, a year-round, 24/7 security guard presence would cost $189,697 at each cemetery.

The cemetery division has also engaged in community outreach by sending out surveys to people who own plots at city cemeteries, with the goal of gathering “information related to stakeholder recommendations” about how to spend the remaining 2018 bond money.

Perhaps surprisingly, the highest priorities among respondents didn’t have much to do with security. In 164 responses, the top concerns were updating irrigation systems for turf watering and updating restroom facilities.

Fifty-eight percent responded that they’d like to see the city invest in a columbarium, a structure that stores the ashes of the deceased.

In contrast, the installation of security cameras ranked fifth on the list of concerns; the proposed installation of fencing ranked seventh and the proposed installation of lighting ranked eighth.

In spite of the responses, the department intends to go forward with improvements related to security.

The memo says that “based upon the research and stakeholder community survey feedback,” it plans to “install a combination of solar and night watchman lighting to enhance security at Evergreen Cemetery and facilitate the needed roadway repairs at Evergreen Cemetery.”

The Monitor reached out to PARD for comment, but did not receive a response in time for publication.

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City of Austin Parks and Recreation Department: The city department responsible for the city's park system, rec centers, and associated infrastructure.

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