City Council agreed to split a proposed doubling of cemetery plot fees for 2013-14, instead bumping them to $450 from the current $300 as part of the draft budget, which managerial staff still deemed a positive step toward ensuring the city would not go into the hole when it comes time to buy more land.
The plot fees, previously $150 for Sandhill Cemetery and $165 for Springvale Cemetery for residents, increased to $300 in the current 2012-13 budget, with non-resident rates hiked to $600, keeping the tradition of being twice the resident rate.
Assistant city manager Shawn Purvis brought the issue back to Council during a budget work session earlier this week, reminding them of last year’s proposal to double the rates again in 2013-14.
It was during a May 2012 budget work session that staff announced its intention to go up on the plots, floating a proposal to quadruple fees over the next two years, a move to bring it in line with the low end of what other municipalities routinely charge. At the time, Purvis said Clinton’s rates were nowhere near what other towns charge.
An increase to a $600 minimum rate would still be on the low end, he noted.
“This would be the second phase of that two-part increase, doubling from $150 to $300 then $300 to $600, and again that puts us at the minimal (rate) as we try to make sure we balance how much it costs to run the cemetery with the revenues we generate from it,” Purvis said this week. “This is all used for cemetery purposes.”
Purvis said city officials checked with numerous towns about rates last year, including Greensboro, New Bern, Washington and Wilmington, among others. Clinton’s outside rates, which are double the inside rates, are typically the minimum rates for those other towns.
“Six hundred (dollars) was the lowest any of them had, and it was only one,” Purvis noted. “If you wanted to operate it like the private side, it would be considerably more — you’d have to go $1,000-plus per plot. We wouldn’t recommend doing that as a public cemetery. This still does put us at the bottom as far as the fees other cemeteries charge, private and public. We’re still going to be on the very low end of that.”
Payments received for the purchase of cemetery plots in the Sandhill and Springvale cemeteries are used to mow and maintain the city’s two public cemeteries and purchase land for them. With an increase to $600, it would add about $15,000 to operating revenues, which would be transferred to the General Fund.
“That would still only be about $55,000 we would be generating off the cemetery, which for Grounds and Maintenance is about one-fifth of their budget,” said Purvis, “but they spend a lot more than 20 percent of their time at the cemetery.”
Councilman Neal Strickland asked whether the city should add another step between the ultimate move to $600, waiting until 2014-15 for $600 and splitting the difference on the increase for 2013-14. Purvis said there would be effects on the revenue side with the modification, but, regardless of what was discussed as part of last year’s budget, it was Council’s decision to make anew this time around.
“You’re only ever going agree to anything at a year at a time when we do the budget,” Purvis said.
He said the initial thought last year was to go straight to $600, but seeing as it would be a significant increase in one year, a modified recommendation by staff was made to put another step in the process and bring it back to Council this year for the second and final part of the increase — from $300 to $600.
Councilman Marcus Becton did raise concerns that the city may be overpricing its plots.
“My concern is if we get a little bit too expensive price-wise,” said Becton, “then we will start losing to Hillcrest and Grandview. I know we’re not in a competition, but the consensus will be if we have to pay $600 or $700, then I might as well go into a perpetual-care cemetery, and pay a little bit more.”
Becton, who is an Apostle at Way of the Cross Church and grief counselor for Brock Memorial & Worley Funeral Home, said he did not speak for other funeral homes but has extensive experience dealing with local cemeteries, notably Sandhill.
“I feel like if we’re going to go into that price, we’re going to have to step up the care of the cemetery, because there is a lot of slackness in the care and maintenance of the cemetery. If we’re going to charge more, we’re going to have to take better care of the cemetery.”
Mayor Lew Starling inquired as to whether a hike from $300 to $450 would still be a “positive way for cash flow.” Purvis said the anticipated operating revenues would go from $15,000 to $7,500 with a move to $450 rather than $600.
“It’s definitely moving the way you need to go,” Connet noted. “Everything is going to be fine until we need to buy that acreage to develop more cemetery space. That’s a debate for a different day. You’re going to spend $405,000 you have in your savings right now when you look into buying acreage.”
There is currently about $405,000 in cemetery savings set aside for the future expansion.
According to Purvis, the city sees between 100-125 total plots sold at Springvale and Sandhill annually. The cemeteries are filling up, with about eight years estimated to be left at Sandhill and roughly a decade left at Springvale before new land will be necessary.
Connet said city staff looked into buying nearly 30 acres across from Springvale, and the cost would be roughly $250,000.
“We will have used over half of your savings, and you would have to do the same or something similar on Sandhill,” said Connet. “It’s just realizing that the time will come that you’ll have to do that. And that doesn’t include putting in the roads and laying it out. Down the road, there will be a cost — that’s why we’re trying to get that savings built up.”
“I know that in six years we have to look at additional land, so we don’t want to go in the hole,” added Becton, who agreed with Strickland’s proposed course of action. “If we’re at $300, I would feel like we should jump it again (before $600).”
Also on the subject, Public Works director Jeff Vreugdenhil mentioned having one rate for inside and outside plot sales, but no further discussion was entertained on the matter.
“You have an inside-outside rate. It’s not a problem, but it is an issue,” said Vreugdenhil. “I would be a strong advocate for just a rate, not inside, not outside. In all due honesty, as an inside citizen, I can come in and buy five plots — we never verify who goes in the other four. It’s just a big loophole; it’s a vortex. I think the majority of the plots we sell at the inside rate go to people who live outside the city limits.”
Administratively-speaking, Vreugdenhil noted, it would be “so much easier” if there was a flat fee.
“There are a lot of checks that need to be done,” he said of the current system. “I’m not going to say they’re pointless, but sometimes they seem to be.”
There was a consensus, no official vote, between Council to modify the proposed increase to $450 for inside cemetery plots as part of the recommended budget, with outside rates to be double that. The final proposed budget is expected to be submitted May 31, with a public hearing to be held June 4. Budget adoption is scheduled for June 18.
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.