El Dorado County considers parcel tax for cemetery upkeep
Facing sky-rocketing cemetery costs, the El Dorado County Board of Supervisors is moving forward with planning efforts for a $9 per parcel tax on the March 2020 primary ballot.
Following a recommendation from the county’s Cemetery Advisory Committee, the ballot measure would form a “Western Slope zone of benefit” to provide funding for cemetery operations, improvements, maintenance and preservation.
“We’re dedicating significant staff time and spending more on cemeteries,” said County Deputy Chief Administrative Officer Creighton Avila. “Costs are only going to grow.”
More and more cemeteries are going from privately owned to publicly owned.
California counties are required by state law to take over cemeteries if they become unowned or abandoned.
Cemeteries are becoming unowned or abandoned as families move away, costs become too high or there’s no one to operate them, according to a presentation from county staff at a Sept. 10 Board of Supervisors meeting. The county now owns and operates 20 cemeteries.
Once under their control, counties are required to prescribe “maintenance to protect public health and safety and assure decent respectful treatment of human remains,” according to state law, which in most cases costs public dollars.
In El Dorado County those costs are getting out of hand, according to officials.
In the 2015-16 fiscal year county cemeteries budgeted about $73,000 in General Fund support. That number more than doubled to $152,000 by 2018-19. The county has since taken over more cemeteries. Officials estimate that General Fund support will rise to $250,000. That figure is likely to rise even further as the county inherits even more cemeteries going forward, Avila said.
County coffers are being curtailed by operating costs, according to Deputy County Counsel Roger Runkle.
“Most cemeteries are not income-producing,” Runkle said. “Most aren’t even income neutral.”
All public cemeteries are required by state law to charge endowment fees for burials to offset the cost of operation. The drop in burials and the rise of cremations over the past several decades make endowment fees fruitless.
“We have so few burials every year that there wouldn’t be enough revenue to support any endowment at all at this point,” Avila said. “If we had (endowments) 80 or 85 years ago when (more) people were getting buried, we would’ve saved quite a bit of money.”
Just over 50 percent of Americans chose cremation while 43.5 percent opted for burial in 2016, according to a report from the National Funeral Directors Association. Citing data from Green Valley Mortuary, Avila said 93 percent of El Dorado County residents are opting for cremation.
Speaking in favor of a potential cemetery funding ballot measure, Mike Roberts, chair of the cemetery advisory committee, noted the dire state the county’s cemeteries are in.
“Conditions have slipped a lot,” Roberts said. “A lot of the lawns get cut once a summer. Historical headstones are under threat.”
District 1 Supervisor John Hidahl said he would be “embarrassed” if his grandparents were buried at some of the county’s cemeteries.
“People, including lots of tourists, are very interested in this stuff,” Roberts said. “FindAGrave.com and genealogy tests are blowing up. People are very interested in their ancestors and their history.”
District 2 Supervisor Shiva Frentzen raised concerns on whether a tax increase ballot measure was feasible in light of Garden Valley and El Dorado County Fire Protection District’s recent failures at the ballot box in their respective attempts to increase funding.
“I don’t want to be insensitive but when we talk about the fire districts having a difficult time passing a parcel tax, I don’t know how we can go to our residents with this,” Frentzen said. “People who are alive aren’t willing to pay for their protection yet we’re going to be bringing a parcel tax for cemeteries for dead people.”
Hidahl countered Frentzen’s point stating that the money will have to come from somewhere, either a parcel tax or the General Fund.
A short-term monetary investment could turn El Dorado County cemeteries into a cash cow through tourism, said Ed Bixby, president of Green Burial Council and owner of Western Hills Memorial Park in Placerville.
“We have a moral obligation to take care of these places,” he said. “With that being said, I own cemeteries across this country … I repurpose historical cemeteries and there’s immense value in them, beyond belief. In my personal opinion, there’s a lot of revenue that could be produced.”
Acknowledging the difficulties ahead, Roberts said the county still has a duty to try to help preserve its historical cemeteries.
“I realize it’s an uphill battle in this political climate, but it’s the right thing to do,” Roberts said. “These places connect us with our past, directly with the people who were there. They create a sense of place as nothing else can.”
District 5 Supervisor Sue Novasel recalled her days as a child visiting various Gold Rush cemeteries, noting the importance of preserving and respecting the culture of El Dorado County history.
Currently, the county maintains and operates 20 cemeteries. Three of which, all in Georgetown, already have dedicated funding through a zone of benefit. The western zone of benefit would go toward the other 17 cemeteries and any future county-operated cemeteries unless the three Georgetown cemeteries opted to join the zone as well.
The proposed zone of benefit would consist of approximately 67,630 parcels on the West Slope of the county. The zone would exclude parcels within the city of Placerville, Kelsey Cemetery District, Georgetown Cemetery zone of benefit, community services area 3 and Happy Homestead Cemetery District, according to the county’s presentation.
A $9 parcel tax would bring in approximately $609,000 for the zone of benefit. As proposed, the parcel tax would include a sunset date of 10 years.
The county analyzed how 16 other California counties of similar size and history operated their cemeteries — it couldn’t have been more different. None of the 16 counties regularly used general fund dollars to operate cemeteries. None directly operated its cemeteries, forming cemetery districts instead.
The board voted 4-1 in favor of moving forward with the measure, with Frentzen voting no. The board will hold a public hearing on the proposed measure Nov. 5, making a final decision on the wording and whether to place the zone of benefit on the ballot on the same day.