Meeker residents express discontent with cemetery district’s 2017 budget

A snow-covered Highland Cemetery in Meeker reveals some of the improvements that have been made by the Meeker Cemetery District during the last few years. Some residents feel the district is getting too much money. Bobby Gutierrez photo

MEEKER | Half a dozen Meeker citizens attended the budget approval meeting for the cemetery district Dec. 8 to voice their concerns about the size of the proposed budget for 2017.
The cemetery district is one of 18 special districts in Rio Blanco County funded by property taxes. Some special districts are established by counties to provide necessary services, infrastructure and amenities for residents like hospitals, libraries, sanitation, recreation, etc. Others are set up by the landowners for the purpose of protecting natural resources.
The Meeker Cemetery District’s mill levy is set at 0.867 on a valuation of $783,475,580. Rio Blanco Fire District, Eastern Rio Blanco County Health District and the Meeker Regional Library District all draw from that same valuation, which encompasses the eastern two-thirds of the county.
According to the county assessor’s office, the Meeker Cemetery District received $679,273 in 2015 to maintain and manage Highland Cemetery and several historic cemeteries in the area. The proposed 2017 budget estimates total revenue to be $556,711.90.
The budget is planned to match that amount, although that total will not necessarily be spent during the year, resulting in a carryover of revenue for the following year. For example, the total proposed budget for 2017 is $505,416.50. Several years of spending below what was budgeted have generated a healthy reserve fund for the district, despite the fact revenue has dropped by $150,000 a year since the downturn of the economy.
“What we’ve been able to do up here is because of the tax increases that came while we were flush,” said manager Art Cox. “We didn’t have a capital reserve back then.”
In the last few years Highland Cemetery has added an office at the cemetery site, instead of sharing a building in town, added new outbuildings to house and protect equipment, and made improvements in signage, fencing and more. In addition, they’ve worked to create a database of historic graves and replace disintegrating headstones.
“We are not a line item budget. We don’t spend everything we have and we don’t put anything in our budget that will not balance to our revenue,” said retiring office manager Lila Cox. Janny Varland will take her place.
Citizens addressed specific concerns related to payroll increases, which show an increase of $78,000 since 2015.
Cox said that can be attributed to adding an additional full-time position in 2016, a state-approved 4 percent cost of living increase, and a spike in the cost of health insurance premiums. The district employs two full-time staff positions, one year-round part-time employee and one or two part-time seasonal employees for grounds maintenance.
Board member Joe Conrado, just appointed to the board this fall, said, “I, as a board member, think we should vote on raises. We need to decide if 4 percent is fair to the taxpayers and the employees.”
Business owner Melinda Parker made a comparison between the budget for the Meeker Cemetery District and the Rangely Cemetery District. The Rangely district has a valuation of $427,437 and has a lower mill levy (0.098), resulting in revenue (from the 2015 tax summary) of $41,889.
Matt Grenfell, who manages the Rangely Cemetery, said their prices are $60 for a plot and $200 for a burial.
“I really feel that the budget is way too high for this facility,” Parker said. “Rangely’s isn’t the showplace that this place is, but I’m not sure a town of 2,500 needs a showplace. To me this has gotten out of control.”
Kim Rule, business owner, asked how many burials are done on average each year. Cox said 26 is the annual average.
“If you privatized this, I could do this on a quarter of what this budget is. I look at all these special districts, I look at the schools struggling because we won’t vote a mill levy because we have all the special districts,” Rule said.
Privatization of the cemetery would result in dramatic increases in the cost of burials, according to Cox. The Meeker cemetery district charges $300 for a standard burial for residents or family, $1,500 for non-residents with no family ties to the area. The price goes up slightly if the funeral is on a weekend. A cremains lot is $150 for a resident. Veterans are buried at no charge.
According to Cox, without the mill levy to cover the care and maintenance of the cemetery, a standard burial would cost $13,563.46 for a resident, and $33,908.65 for a non-resident with no family ties to the area. A cremains lot would go up to $10,172.60.
Brian Conrado asked who has oversight of the board and the district. As a Title 30 special district, the board is appointed by the county commissioners to serve six-year terms. The district is audited annually and has access to legal guidance from the county attorney and financial guidance from the county’s CPA.
“For your protection I would think you would want a line item budget,” said incoming RBC commissioner Si Woodruff.
Other questions raised had to do with grants given by the district to other taxing districts and to the community, including money granted to the school district and scholarships.
“We weren’t spending it and we wanted to give it back to the community,” said board member Jan Oldland.
Conrado said he would like to look into the possibility of giving a “tax holiday” for a year.
“Why are we just taking this money if we don’t really need it?” Conrado asked. “I would like, as a board member, to go through some of these items. What do the taxpayers want us to do?”
The three-person board, absent member Bill Jordan, set a special workshop meeting for Dec. 12 to go over the budget again.
The 2017 budget was passed Monday without changes at the special meeting.