As I sat through retired RDCK treasurer Barry McLean’s presentation about cemeteries at last week’s town council meeting, I was amazed at what a complicated situation the town is in, really through no fault of it’s own (John Kettle will disagree — more about that in a bit).
How, I wondered, did it happen that local governments got into the business of operating cemeteries in the first place? I suppose it probably happened when legislation regulating burials and preventing them from being done on private property came into play. Anyone without a church — which was where most cemeteries were — affiliation would have been pretty much left out in the cold, so to speak, without a public, non-denominational option.
So now the town is in a situation where the Regional District of Central Kootenay could carry out its threat to stop contributing to the operation of Forest Lawn Cemetery, leaving Creston with a fairly hefty bill. And taxpayers, especially those who have no family ties to the cemetery and who have no intention of ever using the facility, could start to question the wisdom of operating cemeteries with tax dollars. While there is, by law, a portion of each plot sale put aside to create a perpetual fund for the operation of the cemetery, it now totals only about $100,000, which doesn’t generate nearly enough interest to pay for the mowing and upkeep of what amounts to a large park.
To make up for the shortfall, town and regional district taxpayers have been kicking in annually and the issue might have carried on quietly, as is, had Area B director Kettle not begun to make waves about the costs. For the past few years he has been advocating that the maintenance of the valley’s largest cemetery should be contracted out, on the theory that the use of non-union, private sector labour will result in a large saving (the opening and closing of burial sites is covered by fees).
When the cost issue began to surface, it occurred to everyone involved that they really had no idea how various cemeteries in the Creston Valley and East Shore functioned and local politicians wisely asked for a report that would help them as they wrestle with what to do in the future. In that report, they heard that current charges at Forest Lawn are pretty much in line with other small communities in the province and, most important, the town can’t just decide to get out of the cemetery business. It owns the land and has a legal obligation to carry on with its maintenance in perpetuity. Even if it took the risky decision to privatize, in the event the new owner eventually went bankrupt, the operation would revert to the town. The regional district is not obligated under law to help fund the operation but McLean makes it pretty clear that he thinks there is at least a moral obligation for it to do so. Kettle seemed to hear that message when he saw the presentation, but I have no doubt he will work hard to tie Area B’s continued participation into an attempt to force the town to contract out the work. Of course, even if town council agrees, there is still the issue of a union contract to deal with.
Personally, I think the concept of burials is outmoded and certainly not a practice that needs to be funded with tax dollars. But it is quite possible that I am in the minority. Council will have to weigh public opinion as it moves forward with how it will deal with cemetery costs. One option would be to hike prices to a level that, perhaps over a period of several years, would make the cemetery’s operation self-sustaining. But that could push families away from using Forest Lawn, which would mean that the maintenance costs would still have to be borne by the taxpayer, whether council likes it or not.
At the very least, I suppose, the issue should be a warning for any local government — don’t get into funding anything without knowing how you or your successors can get out of it when the political and economic tides change.
Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.