Cemetery stalemate continues

West Avenue Cemetery

West Avenue Cemetery

The cards were laid on the table Wednesday at a special reference committee meeting of city council held at the Seniors Centre.

After a summer of deliberation, the steering committee struck by council on April 20 to develop a business plan “that reflects the ability of St. Thomas Cemetery Company to be sustainable” delivered the goods.

And it wasn’t music to the ears of Mayor Heather Jackson and most councillors.

“There are only two options,” advised cemetery board member and former alderman Gord Campbell.

“The city gives us money or we go to the province. And that’s not a threat, that’s reality.”

The cemetery board served notice to the city in April that it would seek to abandon its two burying grounds — West Avenue and South Park — if a long-standing city grant wasn’t reinstated. The $59,000 grant was denied during March budget deliberations.

Just days before the April 30 deadline established by the board, the city threw the cemetery a $30,000 lifeline, with the provision a business plan would be submitted this month.

With about two dozen people in the gallery — including a sizable delegation from the Municipality of Central Elgin where South Park Cemetery is located — the hour-long discussion saw little in the way of give or take on the part of council or the cemetery board.

The business plan puts forth three recommendations: the city continues with the grant on a year-by-year basis; the grant continues through 2017 to allow the cemetery company’s proposed crematorium business to develop; the city would offer continued support at a reduced level over time.

The crematorium, to be located at South Park, proved a stumbling block for several members of council, including councillors Joan Rymal and Gary Clarke.

Lesley Buchanan at West Ave. Cemetery.

Lesley Buchanan at West Ave. Cemetery.

Their concerns about the financial viability of the crematorium and potential city liability should the cemetery company walk away from the properties were unfounded, stressed Central Elgin Mayor David Marr.

“The crematorium is a red herring at this time,” charged Marr. “If the company folded down the road (after the crematorium was completed) the city inherits West Avenue and Central Elgin inherits South Park. It becomes Central Elgin’s problem not the city’s.”

Campbell noted the current situation is not strictly a financial problem, it is an historical issue dating back to the very first cemetery board in 1850 and their estimation of operating costs.

“This situation isn’t going away,” stressed Campbell. “We need an understanding we will get long-term help from the city.”

Countering requests by Coun. Rymal for the board to reduce its costs at West Avenue, Gail Ballard, a member of the Old

St. Thomas Church Restoration Trust which maintains one of the oldest landmarks in St. Thomas, stressed “this is as cost effective as you are going to get. Trust me, you do not want to run that cemetery.”

So with council not scheduled meet again until Oct. 5, who is going to blink first?

“Our board is going to have a meeting next week,” advised St. Thomas Cemetery Company manager Lesley Buchanan. “We’ve got a motion on the books but they (the board) can rescind that or they don’t have to act on it. But they will meet and have some frank discussion on it.”

The motion is the original board recommendation to abandon the cemeteries that was deferred to Sept. 30.

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