Numbers show city’s cemetery department mired in red ink, losing hundreds of thousands of dollars annually

Published 9:57 am Thursday, May 25, 2023

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Records obtained from the City of Selma paint a bleak financial picture of the city’s cemetery department, with annual expenses far exceeding annual revenue generated from the city’s four cemeteries – Old Live Oak, Live Oak, New Live Oak, and Lorenzo Harrison Memorial Gardens.

Financial records show from the period October 1, 2021 to September 30, 2022, the cemetery department had $566,438 in expenses, and $95,297 in revenues, creating a deficit in the city’s coffers of $471,141.

The records showed revenue flowed to the city in the cemetery department from three sources – grave lot sales [$25,880], grave foundation fees [$1,018], and grave permit fees [$68,400]. Major expenses included salaries [$242,601], health insurance [$45,312], payroll taxes [$17,725], and vehicle related expenses [$18,587]. The report showed $2,000 expensed for “tree cutting/ trimming/ removal.” It also showed an expense of $13,800 for “Building repair Zeta,” and another $6,231 for building repairs & maintenance.

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The three historic cemeteries are all in Ward 3, and Ward 3 City Councilman Clay Carmichael said he believes while the cemetery department is doing a good job, the financial problems are complex, and suggested a solution that may be good for the city, its taxpayers, and those who visit Selma.

“We may have a burial or two a year in Live Oak, and that’s not going to cover the maintenance on that, so Old Live Oak and Live Oak, should probably be separated out somehow because they’re actually more like parks instead of revenue producing cemeteries,” Carmichael said. “If there’s a way to gate those cemeteries and produce revenue from tourism, I think we should look into those type of options, and then Lorenzo Harrison and New Live Oak, we need to increase our fees so we can afford the upkeep there.”

The city’s website shows burial lots priced at $300 in Old Live Oak, Live Oak, and New Live Oak, with lots in Lorenzo Harrison Memorial Gardens priced at $250. Other prices listed on the website are: $300 for a funeral on weekdays [$500 for a funeral on weekends and holidays]; $100 for cremation on weekdays [$200 for weekends and holidays]; and $100 for an infant on weekdays [$200 for weekends and holidays].

Shane Ogle, a licensed funeral director and funeral home manager at Selma Funeral Home, said the city’s fee structure sets the cemetery department up for financial failure because their rates are too low. Selma Funeral Home owns and operates Pineview Memory Gardens in Valley Grande, where lots are $700, with 15% of the fee going to the State of Alabama where it’s kept in a perpetual care fund to be used for cemetery upkeep should the cemetery close.

They’re charging the same prices they were charging 35 – 40 years ago. Lots are $300 each, and that is unheard of,” Ogle said. “And a lot of people who are passing away now, their lots have been bought years ago, so now all they’re charging for is the opening and closing of graves, and that’s only $300. And if they’re cremated that’s only $100. There’s no revenue coming in whatsoever. It costs a lot of money to maintain a cemetery, and just like any business you have to go up on your prices sooner or later. The city is charging the same price as they did in 1980. They could have a lot nicer things out there, they just don’t have the income.”

Selma’s cemeteries, and their lack of upkeep, have been a boiling point for many in Selma for years. Selma’s cemeteries are listed on the Alabama Historic Cemetery Register, thus the Alabama Historical Commission sets forth guidelines for their preservation and care, but the AHC has no enforcement power, thus it’s left up to the discretion of the cemetery owners to follow them.

“The Alabama Historical Commission has guidelines for cemetery preservation and care, but the agency does not have authority to require a city or any other entity to follow those guidelines,” said Kathryn Shoupe, Public Relations Manager for the Alabama Historical Commission.

Carmichael says this administration is doing a better job of maintaining the city’s cemeteries than the previous administration, with wage increases and equipment purchases giving the cemetery department more assets for upkeep.

“Ward 3 comprises 95% of the historic district, so a lot of those people within the historic district are those who are interested in preserving history, and a lot of them are genuinely concerned about preservation of our cemeteries,” Carmichael said. “The cemetery department has done a pretty good job comparatively speaking up until the tornado. They had at one point had gotten about fully staffed and were doing a really good job cleaning up and keeping up the cemetery, compared to the previous administration, which was a mess. Mr. Coon was a great director, but when we put in wage increases for the cemetery department in March 2021, we were able to hire a few more folks, and that helped. We were also able to get some more equipment for the cemetery department, so that helped, too.”

Ultimately Carmichael said he would entertain the idea of selling or granting Live Oak and Old Live Oak to a non-profit that would maintain it as a tourism draw.

“It has been mentioned in public meetings that it would behoove us to sell it or grant it to a non-profit organization that could keep it up themselves and sell tickets for entry,” Carmichael said. “Cemetery Preservation Group seems like a reasonable organization to do it, and they bought some property on Selma and Pettus, and they’ve torn down a couple of houses and they ultimately would like to put some bus parking in there. Their upkeep there means a lot to the city, and if that’s something everybody is interested in doing we can entertain that. A private fund or non-profit could probably raise enough to keep it up and put a long-term plan together to benefit tourism.”

Cemetery Preservation Group director Doug Buster said his organization would certainly be open to hearing more about what Carmichael proposed.

“Cemetery preservation group is primarily designed to restore and make repairs in our historic cemeteries,” Buster said. “Most likely if something like this was to take place, we’d want to set up a separate non profit and we would have to explore that and see if we would have enough people who would be willing to help organize such an effort. We’d certainly be interested in entertaining that idea.”

Buster also said he felt Old Live Oak could be a tourism gold mine if its story were better told.

“Old Live Oak is definitely a big draw, and could definitely be bigger if properly promoted,” Buster said. “We did have a gentleman who had toured most of the historic cemeteries in the country and he is writing a book about it and told me Old Live Oak would rank in the top 5 most interesting he’d seen.”

Editor’s note: The Selma Times-Journal sought Selma Mayor James Perkins, Jr.’s comments for this story, but emails asking for comment were unsuccessful.