Staff, Council share ‘grave’ concerns

By Chris Berendt Staff Writer

April 24, 2014

The City of Clinton is expected to boost its cemetery plot fees for the coming year in continuing a plan that began in 2012, as well as hire a contractor to dig all graves to ensure uniformity and accountability.

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.

The plot fees, previously $150 for Sandhill Cemetery and $165 for Springvale Cemetery for residents, increased to $300 in the 2012-13 budget, with non-resident rates hiked to $600. For the current 2013-14 year, those fees again rose — but did not double as initially proposed — going to $450 and $900 for residents and non-residents, respectively, where they stand now.

City staff at a budget meeting earlier this week proposed to complete the initial plan to increase to $600, which would still be at the low end of what other municipalities charge. 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.

“When we started this two years ago, it was to bring us in line with other cemeteries and not even with the average, just the minimum,” said Purvis. “The trend to $600 would put us at the minimum.”

The Council voted to put the $600 fee for residents across the board into the proposed 2014-15 budget. The city sees between 100-125 total plots sold at Springvale and Sandhill on an annual basis. While sales of plots typically spike in May and June, finance officer Harry Staven noted that sales this fiscal year were less than half what they were the previous year.

“Well we spiked in 2012 because everybody in Clinton showed up to buy a plot when they heard about the rate increase,” said Public Works and Utilities director Jeff Vreugdenhil, who noted 20 plots sold in just a few weeks. “Our sales have basically fallen off the table since then.”

Vreugdenhil said he was an advocate of having a flat rate, $600, for plot sales that would make the process easier. Inside citizens can come in and buy five plots. With no verification on who goes in the other four, it is a large loophole.

“I say this with no hesitation: 99.5 percent of our sales are for inside personnel, whether they are or not,” he commented. “I’m proposing to make it simple … $600 inside or outside, because we seldom sell one outside.”

The cemeteries are filling up, with the city expected to run out of space at Sandhill and Springvale within the next decade. City staff have previously looked into buying nearly 30 acres across from Springvale, with the cost about $250,000. As of last year, $400,000 had been saved toward a future land purchase.

The addition of a columbarium, a structure of vaults lined with recesses for the storage of urns, will go a long way toward expanding space without having to spend big dollars.

“We see the columbariums as an expansion of the cemetery,” said city manger Shawn Purvis. “In effect, we’re increasing the capacity of that cemetery without having to go out and purchase land.”

One is already going up in Sandhill, will still some decorative work still to be done.

“My goal is to have them operational, available for sale, by the fiscal year,” said Vreugdenhil. “It’s possible to have 144 occupants in one, in an area smaller than this table. At $450 per interment, they could have either single or double-occupancy.”

There would be no raw funeral costs such as a deed or a coffin, Purvis noted.

“The costs are so significantly less,” Vreugdenhil added.

‘Grave concern’

In other cemetery matters, Vreugdenhill requested that an annual request for proposals (RFP) for grave opening and closing become a standard practice, with all graves at the city cemeteries to be opened and closed by the city or its authorized contractor. That cost would be $500, Vreugdenhil proposed.

Prompting concern, he said, was the standard sight of a few guys in a “non-professional environment,” with station wagon, pull-trailer and some shovels in tow, digging graves.

“I have grave concern about that,” Vreugdenhil stated. “Everyone we hire in the city to work for us is required to have worker’s compensation and insurance. The funeral homes currently can call anyone to go dig a grave for them. They’re on your property digging a grave and I think it’s a grave liability issue. I believe the city should put out an RFP for a grave digging contractor, that he be required to have insurance and that only he be enabled to dig graves in our cemeteries and that we charge $500 for that service.”

It will probably ultimately fall into the $350-$400 range for the service cost. With the city handling about 100 internments in cemeteries each year, there is some revenue to be had.

“That would be $10,000 to $15,000 a year we would generate that we currently don’t,” Vreugdenhil noted, “plus you would be safeguarded from a liability issue should somebody get hurt.”

That $500 fee for opening/closing would be $750 on weekends, according to a request by staff.

Councilman Marcus Becton, who is an Apostle at Way of the Cross Church and grief counselor for Brock Memorial & Worley Funeral Home, concurred that funeral homes can have anyone dig graves. While Brock has its own insured gravedigger, he pointed to one particular instance involving another funeral home in Goldsboro not long ago.

“Some of the family members were out there digging a grave and three of them couldn’t walk because they were so intoxicated,” he remarked. “They didn’t have the money and they decided they would dig the grave.”

If there is a poorly-dug grave, it compromises another owner’s property with tombstones moving and sinking.

“It’s liability control and it’s quality control,” Purvis noted.

“I think it will be a good thing,” Becton noted. “Our gravedigger is 100 percent for it. Sometimes a funeral home comes in and digs a grave in one place and we come along and dig one (next to it) and maybe they didn’t dig that other one correctly or came over too much. (Having a contractor) would cut some of that out.”

Mayor Lew Starling said if a consensus from the funeral homes in the city and county could be reached, he believed from a quality health standpoint, the city should move in that direction.

In addition to conversations with Becton, Vreugdenhil said he had already spoken with representatives at Crumpler-Honeycutt, Royal Hall and Hope Valley. All said they were in favor of moving toward a contracting service, saying “it’s one less thing we have to do,” the Public Works director relayed.

“It’s the accountability more than anything,” the Public Works director said. “It’s certainly not about the slight bit of increased revenue, which is a good thing. But now, if I have one person who is a lower bidder with competent skills and accreditations, if I have a settling problem or any issues with a grave, I know who to call.”

“This needs to be standardized,” Councilman Steve Stefanovich. “There’s no doubt about it.”

Vreugdenhil also pointed out that the city has no requirement for an outer vault. While 98 to 99 percent of the graves in Springvale have a sealed concrete or Fiberglas vault, many in Sandhill do not, which subjects those graves to cave-ins, depressions and settling, which affects those plots and surrounding ones.

Becton said he has buried many in Sandhill Cemetery without a vault.

“Some have been financial reasons, and surprisingly there were quite a few people who just felt like they didn’t need it,” Becton remarked.

“Most perpetual care cemeteries require it,” Vreugdenhil said. “It is a cost, but it’s one of the things I’d like (Council) to consider. If we don’t do something about it, you’ll probably hear something about it in a later budget year.”

Starling said more discussion was needed on that topic, but Council gave its consensus to include in the 2014-15 budget the $600 flat plot fee and the RFP for grave digging contractor, which would be a $500 cost.

Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at