Exeter Cemetery District, which oversees three cemeteries, says district has made cutbacks but is still struggling financially
By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
EXETER – Cemeteries have long held our fascination as places of remembrance and respect as well as death and despair. And more recently public cemeteries have grabbed headlines for embezzlement in Visalia and Grand Jury investigations in Woodlake.
Neither of those is happening in the Exeter Cemetery District, yet their small, but dedicated trio of board members want the community to know that the district is also facing financial and physical obstacles at its three cemeteries.
Andrea Sousa, president of the district’s board of directors, said she understands the community’s concerns over crooked headstones, gopher holes, and dead grass at the Exeter Cemetery but isn’t sure what the district can do about it. She has repeatedly pleaded with community members to attend their board meetings or offer ideas to help improve the cemetery but no one ever attends the meetings.
“We are doing what we can with the cemetery and trying to turn it around with what we have,” Sousa said.
Board trustee Ron Faulkner said the district has seen its revenues have dwindled over the last eight years and there has never been an increase in the property tax rate used to fund the district.
“We are operating on a shoestring budget and that’s why the cemetery doesn’t look good,” Faulkner said. “We have cut back on everything and still doesn’t seem to be enough.”
Faulkner said there are no plans for the district to try and increase the property tax rate but the cost of maintaining the cemeteries continues to climb. The Exeter Public Cemetery District encompasses the cities of Farmersville and Exeter as well as the community Lemon Cove and Yokohl Valley with a total of about 8,200 parcels in the district. Unlike other cemetery districts, the Exeter district oversees three separate cemeteries including Exeter Cemetery, Deep Creek Cemetery in Farmersville and Hamilton Cemetery off Avenue 310 between Exeter and Woodlake. Exeter and Hamilton’s water wells are functioning but Deep Creek has not had a working well since 2014. Cemetery manager Roy Nelson said it would take about $40,000 to drill a new well at the Farmersville cemetery, and even if the district could afford it, they would have to think twice about spending the money because that cemetery hasn’t made any money in three years with zero burials in that time.
All three cemeteries are in financial trouble. Nelson said the industry started to take a turn for the worse in 2008. For the first time in many years, the cemetery took a $61,000 loss that year. Since then district has continued to take a loss year over year with the budget gap growing to more than $80,000 last year. In all, the district has taken a $700,000 hit to its budget over the last decade.
“We’re pretty open,” said Faulkner. “We’ll open the financials to anyone and we aren’t afraid to talk with people about it.”
The sale of lots and services and vaults and liners totaled more than $287,000 that year, and were on a steady incline for five years. Since that time, sales have dropped to $255,000 and it may be less when the current fiscal year ends on June 30. Nelson said the drop off in sales is directly related to the increase in after death options for families, primarily cremation. Those fees associated with burials typically cost a minimum of $7,000, according to the Parting.com’s January 2018 estimates. That’s compared with just $1,100 for cremation, according to the Cremation Research Council’s most recent information. The cremation rate for California was nearly two-thirds (61.6%) in 2015, according to the Cremation Association of North America, a number which has been steadily increasing since the 1960s.
The Exeter Cemetery District does have a Cemetery Endowment Fund that has $372,000 in it, but only the interest from the fund can be spent, according to its bylaws. Nelson said the interest is less than $10,000 per year.
“That’s not enough to fix a well, replace equipment or hire another person,” Nelson said.
Property taxes have continued to climb since 2004, increasing by 93%, but only represent 21% of overall revenues. Nelson estimates that the district brings in about $57,000 per year in property taxes, or just under $7 from each piece of property in the district.
“We are two bad months in a row of being out of money, and possibly closing,” Nelson said. “I don’t know what the solution is.”
Faulkner and Sousa, along with the third board member Jenny Powell, have been trying to find answers to the districts’ financial woes. Most of the answers have come at the cost of traditional services and none are enough.
Nelson said the district continues to repair and reuse a 30-year-old turf vacuum, and has two riding lawn mowers that are both 20 years old in order to avoid purchasing new equipment that could cost more than $20,000 each. The district laid off a third of its workforce in 2008 when it cut back from three full-time employees to two full-time employees. The district does hire a part-time position each summer to try and keep up with the watering, dead tree removal and other grounds maintenance.
“If you have an idea to make things better we are asking for your help,” Sousa said. “Please come to a meeting and share your idea.”
The Exeter Cemetery District board meets at 5:30 p.m. on the second Wednesday of each month at the Exeter Cemetery office off Marinette Avenue. For more information about the cemetery district, call the office at 559-592-3067.