Pet Cemetery Project On Hold After Financial Review

By: William F. Galvin

Topics: Harwich , Municipal Finance

Cemetery Administrator Robbin Kelley displays the gazebo put in place at the new pet burial grounds along Queen Anne Road. FILE PHOTO

HARWICH — “Errors were made, but nothing that rises to a major level,” Interim Assistant Town Administrator Robert Lawton told selectmen Monday night regarding the use of funds and the decision-making process for the pet burial ground project on Queen Anne Road.

“There was no intent to hide anything,” Lawton said.

After speaking with Cemetery Administrator Robbin Kelley, Lawton said he found she understood she could use funds from the cemetery revolving account for the creation of the pet burial ground. That revolving account was established by town meeting 2010 to be used for the “maintenance, care and support of town cemetery properties.”

Lawton pointed out that in 2016 and 2017, town meeting approved two articles authorizing spending in the amounts of $50,000 in FY17 and $70,000 in FY18 for “maintenance of town cemeteries.” Also in the 2016 town meeting voters authorized the transfer of 2.23 acres on Queen Anne Road to be used for the development of a pet cemetery/crematory. But no appropriation was made at that time.

Lawton also pointed out the pet burial ground was not listed on the town's capital plan. Projects of more than $50,000 must be placed on the plan. But the cemetery commission and the administrator had estimated the cost of constructing the pet burial grounds would be under $50,000. Lawton's review said the cemetery administrator did not total proposals for the work on the burial grounds, which would have been over the threshold requiring inclusion on the capital plan.

He said Kelley also believed the $70,000 approved for use in FY18 could be used to fund the project. At that time, Lawton said, Kelley said it was not clear to her that income from cemeteries for human remains could not be used for an animal remains burial ground.

Lawton pointed out a legal opinion issued by town counsel in May 2017 stated that a cemetery is set aside for the remains of a deceased person and not for animals.

When bids were sought for the project in November 2017, the proposal called for three phases which totaled $69,681. A contract was awarded for the first two phases totaling $46,036.

Lawton said Kelley should have realized the definition of a cemetery applied only to human remains. “However, she was operating under the assumption that the maintenance of cemeteries authorization in the revolving fund was defined by the original 2010 vote and could be used for the pet burial ground.”

Lawton cited a second legal opinion issued on April 22 by town counsel regarding the use of perpetual care funds to develop a pet burial ground, which stated pet burial ground development funds may only be expended from funds generated from the sale of lots sold for the burial of animals, not from the sale of lots for deceased persons.

Lawton's report said Finance Director Carol Coppola took appropriate steps to clarify the opinion and stopped further payments on the work. Once Kelley was made aware of the legal opinion, Lawton stated, it was agreed the project would need to stop. Town Administrator Christopher Clark was made aware of the issues, he reviewed them with the board of selectmen and canceled the walkway project underway and additional planned work.

Lawton made several recommendations, including that no further expenditures be made at this time. He recommended Kelley work with the town administrator to develop a financial plan before a new major project, such as the pet burial ground or crematory, is started. He also stressed the need to submit the project to the capital plan.

“In this particular case a submission should be made and included in the 2019 annual town meeting warrant with revised estimate of the total cost of the project,” Lawton said. “A specific revolving account should be set up to fund the pet burial ground and/or pet crematory. The alternative would be to create a separate line item within the cemetery budget for such purposes and fund it from general revenues at the next annual town meeting.”

Lawton also recommended the town administrator work with the finance director to develop a path to refund the cemetery revolving fund for the amount used in the pet burial ground project before the close of the FY18 budget.