Cemeteries In Crisis: Lack Of Administrator Hampers Operation

By: Tim Wood

Topics: Municipal Finance

The lack of an administrator has caused a serious backlog in paperwork for Chatham's cemetery department. TIM WOOD PHOTO

CHATHAM – Since June, the cemetery department has been without an administrator. The department's day -to-day tasks have been left to Dan Tobin to handle in addition to his regular duties as director of the parks and recreation department.

Tobin, however, is retiring at the end of the month, and members of the cemetery commission worry that without a dedicated administrator, there will be no one to meet with grieving families and sell cemetery plots.

One way or another, those tasks will get done, even if they have to do it themselves, commissioners said. But they'd prefer to find a more permanent fix to the problem.

“We need to have someone in place to do these things,” said commissioner William Bystrom.

In the department reorganization announced last week, Town Manager Jill Goldsmith proposed increasing the hours of the cemetery administrator position from 15 to 19 to try to attract candidates.

“It's been very difficult with 15 hours a week,” said Finance Director Alix Heilala. Several applicants were interviewed since previous administrator Dee Shippelhute left last summer, but none accepted the job, which pays $20.17 to $21.21 per hour depending on qualifications and experience, according to a posting on the town's website. That might not be enough to attract candidates in the current job market, said Select Board member Jeffrey Dykens.

“There won't be any greater interest at 19 [hours] than at 15,” he said last Tuesday. The position is being limited to no more than 19 hours to avoid having to provide benefits.

The cemetery commission would like the position to be full time, said chairman David Whitcomb, to not only take care of the daily needs of the department but to also catch up with paperwork that has not been done in the past eight months and to begin the process of digitizing past records. At a minimum, the position could be shared with the department of public works, under which the cemetery department operates within the DPW building on Crowell Road. The cemetery department was placed under the DPW a few years ago, and Goldsmith's reorganization plan includes shifting two DPW workers to do cemetery maintenance to replace outside contractors.

“It's a natural fit,” Whitcomb said of combining the cemetery administrator with another DPW administrative position.

The position may need to be full time for a period to catch up on paperwork and digitize records, Goldsmith said, but she wasn't sure if it would need to continue as full or part-time.

“This is one area I need to flesh out,” she said.

Dykens said it would make sense to have the position be shared. “Let's maybe get a pool going,” he said, “that will meet the needs of the town across divisions.” He supported redefining the position and combining it with other tasks to make it full time.

“Our service [in the cemetery department] is hurting,” he said.

The cemetery administrator service an important function, since the administrator's job includes meeting with families and explaining the process of buying cemetery plots, Whitcomb said. “It needs a compassionate person,” he said. “And we haven't had anybody doing it for the past eight months.” Last year the sale of cemetery plots brought in nearly $100,000, he added, which goes into the general fund. The cemetery department also has a $500,000 perpetual care fund that generates $25,000 in interest annually. Segregating those revenues into a separate fund might be a way to cover the additional cost of a full-time administrator, he said.

Meeting last month, members of the cemetery commission worried that after Tobin leaves, there will be nobody to run the department.

“What you're basically doing is pulling the plug on the cemeteries,” said Bystrom. “You might as well put a sign up there in the front of the cemetery that says 'Closed.'”

“I don't think the selectmen realize the urgency,” said commissioner Stephen Hart. “I don't think they realize what it means if we can't bury somebody.”

Tobin said he anticipates working with Public Works Superintendent Gary Glazier to train someone in the department to do the basics of the job so that won't happen. DPW Director Tom Temple is currently on medical leave. Tobin said he never envisioned having to perform the cemetery administrator duties this long.

“I thought we'd be a month or two at most,” he said. Right now Tobin answers emails and telephone messages and makes sure plots are provided to those who request them, but paperwork, including recording plot deeds, is not getting done. “We really need to get our records squared away,” Whitcomb said. In addition, old records need to be digitized and historical data entered into a new software system.

Cemetery commissioners could lend a hand, Whitcomb said, but there needs to be a long term solution, “and that's not it.”

On Tuesday Goldsmith said she's working on obtaining interim assistance for the department and expected to have something in place by the end of the week. A repurposed DPW administrative assistant, part of the department reorganization, could help with the cemetery department functions, she added. Goldsmith has not yet issued the reorganization administrative order, and said she taking some time to review comments by the select board and do additional research.