Friday, August 21, 2009

Cemetery Funding

This is a matter of principal.

More precisely, it's a matter of interest.

Caleb Warnock, who writes with more style than any two other journalists, missed a key point in today's Herald when he covered yesterday's council debate about cemetery funding. But he's not to be blamed -- so did almost everybody else in the room.

The article discusses various challenges to cemetery funding, including the rising cost of land for expansion and the $500,000 subsidy the City makes for maintenance and operations. Council discussion focused on the impossibility of covering both maintenance and land replacement through burial fees alone.

There was considerable debate about the perpetual care fund. This fund, as its name suggests, was established to provide maintenance for the cemetery in perpetuity. Its revenue source is a $200 fee paid as part of the purchase price of a burial plot. The fund, which by now has grown to nearly $500,000, yields $400 per month in interest which may be used for cemetery maintenance.

The concept behind any such trust is that one invests the principal and spends the interest. But here's where the misunderstanding begins.

"So desperate is the City," says the Herald, "that they are debating dismantling the cemetery's perpetual care fund. . . . [Mayor Thompson] and others agreed the city should consider changing its ordinance so the city can get its hands on the principal."

Not so, not so!

We council members stated, repeatedly, that the City should begin applying the interest -- the interest -- toward maintenance, as was originally intended. Armed with copies of the ordinance which we held in our hands, we insisted that the ordinance allowed spending the interest -- the interest -- for this very purpose.

Sadly, staff misunderstood our repeated pleas, and could not be dissuaded from their frustratingly irrelevant position that the principal -- the principal -- could not be expended except in case of dire emergency.

It was to this stubborn insistence that Mayor Thompson said, as was reported, that this "seems like a useless fund to me." Useless indeed, if the interest is not to be used as intended. But it is only as wise as wisdom itself -- and as obvious, even to a room full of politicians -- for the City to continue to grow the principal.

The Daily Herald is not to be blamed for this mistake. We'll chalk this one up to human nature -- as a mother of teens, I'm good at this -- and move on.

If only the interest -- $400 per month, $4800 per year -- could make a bigger dent in the $500,000 subsidy.


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