Memorial Park board has heavy cross to bear

CALCUTTA — For many residents, they dreamed of an afterlife as a part of Columbiana County Memorial Park’s Gardens of the Cross, but it appears that a decision to overhaul that cross recently may have contributed to the cemetery’s maintenance failures.

During Tuesday’s regular cemetery board meeting, cars lined the park’s entrance as more than 50 people crammed the chapel to get answers regarding the high grass and debris covered gravestones that greeted hem when they arrived in May to visit their loved ones’ final resting places.

In a nutshell they learned what they suspected from board President Mike Sigler: The board doesn’t have the cashflow to staff for increased mowing of grass.

Apparently, a decision to revamp the illuminated cross to the tune of $118,000 out of Perpetual Fund money as ill-advised, Sigler said, adding that the Ohio Department of Commerce has ordered the money to be reimbursed. Not easy to do when the checking account just has $400 in it, board members revealed.

The cross decision has resulted in much turmoil. Not only did the non-bonded contractor allegedly damage gravestones, the cemetery cannot use its $600,000-plus Perpetual Fund for the work. The fund serves as an insurance to prevent neglect and decay in the future, if the plots fill up and the ability to generate revenue dries up.

Again, the perpetual gu­arantees that the money will be there for the future, it doesn’t represent that an individual grave will be cared for perpetually.

Admitting he did find the condition disturbing, Sigler, who has been in the funeral business for almost four decades, said he has never seen Columbiana County Memorial Park look like this. “It has bothered us on this board,” he explained, adding that when people couldn’t get answers from the cemetery office, they placed hundreds of calls to him at work.

He did acknowledge that the office, which many found not staffed nor cooperative with complaints, might be better staffed.

Complaints made included how can the cemetery hear about complaints if the office is never open. They also talked about the ruts across gravesites, high grass and broken monuments and how the cemetery cannot generate revenue through plot and headstone sales if the office is never open.

Board members couldn’t really answer.

To generate revenue they already have raised prices on some basic services, such as opening and closing of graves, but audience members still seemed unsatisfied with the answers and in some cases the lack of sincerity.

“The broken headstones show a lack of respect,” one woman shouted from the audience as Sigler made the cemetery’s case.

A former cemetery employee said the board members won’t be able to provide answers to all the audience’s questions, reminding those complaining about discarded grave decorations about the cemetery rules that are often disregarded and how weather conditions can impact maintenance opportunities.

For example, people may often put special tributes on the grave right around a loved one’s birthday or Father’s Day, but in the right circumstances, that item can become hazardous. “No glass is to be used as vases at any time! We will remove glass immediately when we see them! We are not responsible for any grave decorations,” the cemetery decorations policy reads.

If stuck by a mower or tractor because the operator fails to see that, that eternal light or object can become a dangerous projectile — especially between March 1 and Nov. 15.

While some bemoaned enforcement of the policy’s validity, others said the cemetery board of trustees has breached its contracts and right to enforce its policy with the failure to maintain the property in the first place. Yet more agreed, they would rather seeing mowing and maintenance done to graves, even if it means no eternal lights or Teddy bears will grace their loved one’s lot in the first place.

The Perpetual Care fund currently has $610,000 in it, but they only touch the interest and dividend, which amounts to around $2,400.

Current payroll, which doesn’t reflect any payout for the board members, reflects around $8,000 a month for three people: two maintenance people and one office staffer, according to Sigler, who admitted some changes may be looming in scheduling and thanked the volunteers for their assistance getting the cemetery in tip-top shape.

One woman posted to Facebook after exiting the meeting, citing the large turnout and people jockeying for opportunity to be heard. “There is list of complaints going back as far as 2017 that still have not been addressed; however, they offered to add the new complaints to that list, and they would get to them as soon as they could….. . One lady who owns a 92-acre farm and mows it daily gave good info on the tires that the cemetery uses is why the headstones are being destroyed.”

Denny Fetty, who led the “Mower Militia” (as they were dubbed), spoke out at Tuesday’s meeting and encouraged board members to be more transparent, especially in regards to cemetery operations and meetings. He said he had spent 17 days out at the cemetery as part of the volunteers, mowing the 50 acres. “I see constant improvement here. I know where we were before Mother’s Day and we’re are now,” he said, encouraging board members to find the funds to hire more maintenance workers and possibly install marking posts.

Others have recounted going to the cemetery before Memorial Day and encountering people so distraught over seeing the conditions that they fell to their knees in despair or were attempting to trim the area around the grave marker with scissors a blade at a time, as some became very emotional during their time to speak.

Sigler provided no real answers but did communicate to the crowd that the board was submitting a plan today to the Ohio Department of Commerce for repayment of the Perpetual Fund, and he also spoke about finding a more permanent solution to utilize community service workers and volunteers.

The cemetery board meets the second Thursday of every month in its office.