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How taxpayers could end up footing the bill for abandoned cemeteries

Posted: 5:00 AM, Sep 20, 2018
Updated: 2018-09-21 04:11:49Z

CINCINNATI -- Gordon Holcomb has only one clue telling him where his parents are buried. 

All the 81-year-old knows about his parents’ burial sites is that they’re located somewhere in Beech Grove Cemetery -- wherever plot 27, section 5D is. 

He can't tell where they are based on those coordinates. The information center at the cemetery disappeared long ago, and Holcomb has no idea which area to look in. 

The disarray within the Springfield Township cemetery is part of a larger trend: A lack of state oversight that leads to dilapidated cemeteries and costs passed on to taxpayers. 

But the Ohio Department of Commerce, which recommends guidelines for the maintenance of a cemetery, has no legal authority to do more than that, said Kelly Stincer, the department's public information officer. 

Cemetery owners are responsible for keeping records of where people are buried and for the maintenance and care of that cemetery, Stincer said. That maintenance includes the grounds around graves and repairing roads. 

So what happened at Beech Grove Cemetery? And whose job is it to fix the problem?

"I see sunken markers, sunken stones, stones that are leaning forward … I’ve been to a lot of cemeteries, and I’ve never seen one in this condition,” Holcomb said. 

Township officials weren’t able to take possession of the cemetery until 2017, when previous owners Bethel Church abandoned the property. 

Springfield Township trustee Gwen McFarlin said by that time she had already heard numerous complaints from people with loved ones buried there, though Stincer said the state hasn't received any complaints about this cemetery since 2001.

Local officials turned to the only enforcement available in the absence of ownership: They declared Beech Grove Cemetery a nuisance at every meeting. 

“It was a vicious sort of cycle that we were going through, but it was the only legal process we had available to us so that we could even cut the grass,” McFarlin said.

The oversight of Beech Grove, along with 4,166 cemeteries across Ohio, is the responsibility of the Department of Commerce. But Stincer said that the state has "absolutely no authority to enforce even the minimum recommendations for maintenance." 

But Springfield Township Administrator Chris Gilbert said he wishes the state would take a larger role in enforcement. 

“Unfortunately the State Department of Commerce is not immune to the same issues that local governments are,” Gilbert said. “Resources are scarce, the ability to enforce policies, laws and regulations are difficult when you don’t have the manpower or resources to do so.”

Stincer said that two full-time staffers handle the day-to-day administration of the program in order to "serve consumers and assist the cemetery community" in complying with Ohio law. 

"This includes registrations, renewals, audits and consumer complaints," Stincer said in an emailed statement. 

"Complaints often involve maintenance of cemeteries; from mowing and trimming to roadways and drainage," the statement continued. "The dispute resolution process is a valuable resource for Ohio cemetery operators to receive advice from the commission regarding standard industry practices and procedures. In addition, the commission adopts and publishes suggested maintenance guidelines for all cemeteries registered in the state of Ohio."

Complaints ranged from holes in the ground to people not receiving tombstones, according to Ohio Department of Commerce records. A Union Township mother in 2012 filed a complaint with the Department of Commerce, alleging the cemetery buried another child in her child’s grave. The department says they never received this complaint. 

Out of the thousands of cemeteries throughout the state, the Department of Commerce has only received 222 complaints since 2010. 

“Unfortunately, just like any law, the enforcement of that law is only as good as your ability to enforce it,” Gilbert said.

Township officials thought they’d finally be able to take on the upkeep when Bethel Church abandoned the cemetery, but taxpayers inherited the cemetery’s debt: About $200,000 in liens and back taxes. 

Township officials then spent six years trying to pass a new law to have those fees forgiven; they also spent tens of thousands more on maintenance repairs and they plan to spend up to $25,000 more to create maps so people can find where their loved ones are buried. 

“That money would have been spent on other infrastructure projects in the community whether that be street repaving, storm sewer repair," Gilbert said. "The mowing and maintenance of our parks.”

Gilbert said the real problem is it’s not clear how much taxpayers would have paid had guidelines been enforced from the beginning. He said it would make more sense for the state to allow local governments to enforce cemetery guidelines, since local governments suffer from the fallout. 

“I would say -- giving local governments as far reaching ability as they possibly can to allow us to deal with these situations locally without dealing with a very lengthy legislative process to get us to the point we are today,” Gilbert said. 

Springfield Township officials say they’re partnering with the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center to help restore the historic cemetery. This is good news for people like Holcomb, who haven’t been able to pay respects to loved ones in years. 

“It’s important because it reflects on our personal feelings,” Holcomb said. “Our hearts. Our memories. It’s, it’s painful.” 

Officials believe they will be able to help Holcomb find his parents' grave this year.