PAWTUCKET — In a tough economic climate and with a deficit to cut down, city leaders are leaving no stones unturned in trying to find more cash. One of the line items that appeared to be flush with cash was a perpetual care fund for city cemeteries containing about $503,000.
Members of the city's financial team want to be able to take $500,000 from this account, along with another $25,000 from a $61,000 Fire Prevention Account, to help address the deficit. Because these two funds are in “restricted receipt accounts” where the money is only supposed to be used for specific purposes, the city needs approval from the General Assembly to tap into them.
Antonio Pires, a special fiscal advisor to Mayor Donald Grebien, testified before the House Finance Committee to that end recently, arguing that most of the money that goes toward cemetery care and fire prevention comes out of the city's general fund. Given the city's current deficit, Pires told legislators that he thinks it is appropriate to use money from these two accounts to help the city make ends meet. In his testimony, he said there would be “no diminishment” to either the cemeteries or fire prevention because the city would use general funds in these areas when needed.
At its last City Council meeting, a majority of the council agreed with the plan, although some expressed reservations. The proposal, which is up for a second passage at tonight's council meeting, calls for taking $500,000 out of the perpetual care fund to put toward the city deficit. Of that amount, $350,000 would be treated as a loan and paid back into the account at $35,000 a year for ten years, beginning in FY13. The sum of $150,000 would not be paid back.
City Solicitor Frank Milos told the council that he didn't see any legal obstacles in the city taking this action, although legislative approval is still necessary for this to take place. As of press time, a decision on the enabling legislation, a bill sponsored by state Rep. Elaine Coderre, was pending.
Councilor John Barry had initially voiced objections to the plan at the last council meeting, but then voted in favor of the plan after Finance Director Ronald Wunschel explained that most of the money would be paid back. He told the Times on Tuesday that since the vote, he had not received any calls of complaint from residents over the proposal.
However, the move to take $500,000 from the perpetual care account has angered some residents, given the condition of the city-owned cemeteries, Mineral Spring Avenue and Oak Grove. The neglected state of the historical Mineral Spring Avenue Cemetery, in particular, has some questioning why money from this fund was not used over the years to pay for better upkeep, and instead was allowed to build up in this fund.
Ken Postle, a city resident who is also a Boy Scout troop leader, said he was shocked when he took a group of Boy Scouts over to the cemetery on a history-themed field trip and saw the uncut grass, litter and, saddest of all, the large number of vandalized headstones.
Postle said he had originally brought the scouts to the cemetery, which dates back to the 1780s, to find gravestones of individuals who served in the Revolutionary War. While the trip proved to be an interesting history lesson, Postle said he could not believe the amount of headstones that had been broken or toppled over as well as how many grave markers had been obscured completely by overgrown grass.
Postle turned this discovery into an ongoing Boy Scout project, which involved having the younger Cub Scouts doing grass cutting and general sprucing of the grave sites and the older boys hefting some of the overturned headstones back on to their bases. The scouts, from Pack 1 and Troop 1 expanded their efforts to clean and decorate the graves in three city cemeteries for Memorial Day, he added.
Still, as a resident, Postle said he questions why the city hasn't done more over the years to maintain the cemetery, and is concerned about the effort to take away the $500,000 from the perpetual care account. He noted that names of some of the city's most prominent families, such as Slater and Jenks, can be found on the gravestones, as well as a Civil War monument, and said the site should be treated with much more reverence and respect. “How can you justify having half a million dollars in there and not fixing anything?” asked Postle. “How much would it take to fix the back fence so no one can crawl in from the railroad tracks and to lock the front gate?”
Another resident that has been angry over the state of the Mineral Spring Avenue Cemetery is Bill Greenwood, a Woodlawn resident who has been pressing city officials to do something about the Mineral Spring Avenue Cemetery for years.
Greenwood said he began asking members of the previous Doyle Administration to devote some time to the cemetery and didn't get much further than some promises that the grass would be cut. He recently began talking to city officials again about the problems, including Mayor Donald Grebien, new acting DPW Robert Howe, and some city councilors, and also attended a recent meeting of the City Council's Cemetery Committee. He said he has offered several suggestions on what should be done—some involving money and others based on volunteer efforts—but again felt that he was just being paid lip service.
Greenwood said he understands that Grebien is faced with a difficult financial task and why his administration would want to use the cemetery funds. Yet, he said thinks more effort could be made on the part of the city to maintain what is an important piece of the city's history.
Both Postle and Greenwood say the biggest method to curb vandalism involves repairing about a 9-foot gap in the chainlink fence that separates the back of the cemetery from the nearby railroad tracks. Both also say that the cemetery's front gate should be locked at night and that overgrown trees and brush that runs along the back of the cemetery should be cut back.
Greenwood adds that regular police patrols should be done, and suggested that lighting be installed on the caretakers shack at the front of the cemetery and perhaps even a nighttime surveillance camera. More importantly, he said he would like to see a volunteer committee formed that would be dedicated to bringing the cemetery back up to speed.
Greenwood noted that he has taken it upon himself to trim back the grass to uncover some of the gravestones when he has spare time. He said he had spent an hour on Tuesday morning using a linoleum cutter to clear five stones in a row, and noted how much could be accomplished with a large group.
“You call yourselves 'Historic Pawtucket, and this cemetery is a half mile from the downtown. How about taking care of it?” fumed Greenwood.
City Councilor James Chadwick, who heads up the City Council's Cemetery Committee, said the condition of the Mineral Spring Avenue Cemetery “has been a thorn in my side for five years.” He said that numerous meetings were held with former DPW Director Jack Carney and others in the previous administration, but the committee was always told there was a lack of funding available. He said the perpetual care account was reportedly earmarked for large-scale equipment purchases, not simple maintenance such as grass cutting and smaller repairs.
Chadwick said that some previous suggestions had included letting people use the Mineral Spring Avenue Cemetery as a dog park, something that was vehemently opposed by the late Councilor Paul Wildenhain. Chadwick acknowledged that this concept did not sit well with many, but also said the idea would have achieved the desired effect of bringing activity and foot traffic to the cemetery, which would have likely deterred vandalism.
Douglas Hadden, director of constituent services and communications for Mayor Donald Grebien, said the administration “recognizes that city cemeteries have been neglected in some ways for years and will continue to address it going forward.” However, he noted that the money in this fund has not been tapped into for many years, with repairs and upkeep coming out of the city's general fund. This is a practice that will continue.
Hadden said that basically, the $500,000 in the perpetual care fund became built up by the city diverting more money into it each year than was necessary during the budgeting process. He said it was only until the recent financial crisis that anyone really paid attention to it.
Hadden said that the grass cutting and other maintenance that is typically done by the city's Department of Public Works has been curtailed by several workers being out due to injuries or illness. He also said that the city recognizes the priorities as being placing a lock on the front gate, repairing the rear fence, and taking down a rotted tree.
Hadden added that the longtime closure of the nearby Conant Street Bridge has added to the neglect and vandalism in the cemetery because the area is so isolated. However, he said that work to repair the bridge and re-open it to traffic is slated to begin in the coming months, which will improve visibility.