Cemetery board ups its prices

Sean C. Morgan

In response to the defeat by voters of its request for a local option levy during the Nov. 8 election, the Sweet Home Cemetery District Board of Directors Monday voted to raise fees for graveyard services and plots.

The levy fell, 1,436 votes (68.41 percent) to 662 (31.54 percent). The election had one under vote, a ballot with no vote. The levy request was for 8 cents per $1,000 of assessed property valuation. It would have raised some $30,000 throughout the district, which extends from the Holley area through the Cascadia area. The district has a budget of approximately $260,000 this year and a permanent tax rate of 21.6 cents per $1,000 of assessed property valuation.

“Very disappointed,” said Mike Melcher, secretary-treasurer of the district Board of Directors.

The levy was supposed to have helped the district catch up on capital improvements and maintenance on its asphalt roadways. It also would have helped maintain two full-time employees. The district cut back to one full-time employee – supervisor Harland Smith – in July, and has subsisted on contract help from Sunshine Industries and occasional temporary labor from laid-off employees.

At their monthly meeting Monday night at the Gilliland Cemetery office, board members agreed that, while people within the city limits apparently understood that the proposed levy would not actually cost them anything more, voters clearly opted not to increase compression on other districts, such as the Police Department and the city library.

“I guess people told us they would rather support other districts,” Smith said.

In cases where a property is in compression, the new tax should not have cost the property owner any more annually. In cases where a property is not compressed, the property could anticipate paying up to $8 more in property taxes annually.

Compression is a term describing the effect of property tax limitations set by state law and approved by voters through Measure Five in 1990. Property taxes are calculated on assessed values. When the values are compared to real market values, they cannot exceed $10 per $1,000 of valuation for general government services and $5 per $1,000 for education services.

Local option levies revenues on a compressed property are reduced first followed by permanent rates, such as the city’s basic tax rate or the Cemetery District’s basic tax rate.

The reduction of tax revenue through this process is called compression. One property may be in compression while a neighboring property may not be. The difference is based on the tax rate and the gap between assessed and real market values. The closer the two values are, the less compression is caused.

Melcher said voters also may have voted against the levy based on their priorities for funding and the effect the Cemetery District’s levy might have had on other levies.

Voter turnout in elections throughout Linn County was 37.86 percent, with 2,919 voters of 7,711 voting in 16 precincts.

“We sure got a lesson from this,” Board Chair Laura Mather said.

“We’ll have to do a lot more campaigning next time,” Melcher added.

Smith reported the results of research he’s done on cemetery costs in Lebanon. He said that Lebanon’s costs, which are for a private cemetery, are significantly higher than Sweet Home’s.

Whereas current rates for flat-stone grave sites in Sweet Home’s five cemeteries are no more than $400 for in-district residents and $500 for buyers who live outside the district, similar site in Lebanon are $1,100. Costs for opening and closing a grave in Sweet Home are $600; they are $740 in Lebanon. Stone setting costs for most grave markers range from $110 to $140 in Sweet Home; they are $200 to $245 in Lebanon, Smith said. Niches in Lebanon’s columbarium, which holds two urns per niche, cost $1,000 to place the first urn and $600 for the second. Sweet Home’s columbarium costs $450 per niche, though, Smith noted, the niches are only large enough to hold one urn.

He also pointed out that the district right now charges no fee for maintaining gravestones purchased from other sources. The district does sell grave markers at “very competitive prices,” he said, but customers have no incentive to purchase them there, rather than at local funeral homes or other sources.

Smith and Hyer agreed that the district is at a disadvantage in promoting its services and prices because, by law, it cannot advertise its services and gravestone prices.

Smith said that, after doing some calculations, he proposed doubling prices for grave spaces and increasing marker and other services by 30 to 100 percent.

The board voted 3-0 to do so, following Melcher’s lead, stating that they wanted to implement the increased service fees immediately, but hold off on the grave space price increases until Jan. 1.

“That sounds pretty reasonable,” Melcher said. “That gives people a chance to buy one before the price goes up.”

Board members, responding to criticism that has included letters to the editor, maintained that they have been conservative and have kept costs down by laying off employees, discontinuing irrigation and foregoing fertilizer purchases last summer as funds dwindled.

Melcher pointed out that, although the district has a fund balance of $477,000 as of Oct. 31, that is “perpetual care” revenue that, by law, can’t be touched.

“We can only spend the interest off that,” he said, noting that the drop in interest rates has significantly reduced that revenue source.

Irrigation this summer was paid for by anonymous donors, Hyer said.

“I don’t like the statement that we are not managing the district in a frugal way,” Melcher said.

Mather added: “Why don’t these people who say that come up here and sit in on one of our meetings and find out?”

With the infusion of $105,328 in tax revenue from the county in late October for the 2011-12 budget year, board members also agreed Monday to return one laid-off full-time employee to the payroll. Smith said that although Sunshine has helped with maintenance, there are many things that haven’t been done in several months. Melcher said the cutbacks have helped the district make it this far with $20,000 in its checking account, whereas in previous years it was zero as the tax revenue began flowing in.

“Normally, at this point we’re squeaking by,” he said. “But hopefully, after having cut back for five months, we have come to the point where we have enough money to carry us through the year.

“Tom and I, as contract loggers, have lived through this type of thing a lot. We will figure it out. I’m confident we can keep this thing going.”