Expect to see the long grass overshadowing graves at New Forest Cemetery in Utica cut down over the next month, the cemetery’s new chairman of the board said.
The new board, elected at a meeting of lot owners on Friday evening, has already examined the cemetery’s equipment and found it to be in good condition, except for some weedkillers that need to be replaced, said said Shawn Lancaster, who was elected president by the new board after the lot owners’ meeting on Friday.
The council will also do an inventory of other maintenance and capital projects, he said. He will meet at the cemetery this week and is trying to schedule a meeting for next week, Lancaster said.
It’s time to properly care for the cemetery, he said, which has been plagued by tall grass, overgrown branches, fallen headstones and rutted roads as his former councils struggled to manage the cemetery with limited funds. The last cemetery board resigned in June, officially leaving the cemetery abandoned until a new board is elected on Friday.
“This is a pivotal life experience, both for the survivors (people buried in the cemetery) and for the people who wish to be buried there,” Lancaster said. “And they want to be reassured that it’s going to be taken care of.”
After:Ailing council abandons Utica cemetery, leaving families in fear of its uncertain future
After:State’s cumbersome cemetery management law forces Whitestown to deal with Glenside and Grandview cemeteries
Their concern was expressed at Friday’s meeting, which was attended by more than 60 people, mostly either landowners who wish to be buried in the cemetery or relatives of those buried there. Attendees questioned how the cemetery could have become so neglected if funds had been set aside for maintenance, as required by state law.
The problem is not the money; it’s the workforce, said Mike Seelman, regional director of the New York State Division of Cemeteries, who moderated the meeting hosted by Congresswoman Marianne Buttenschon. Once the council resigned, there was no one left to run the cemetery and no one was allowed to spend their money on maintenance, he explained.
That’s why the meeting was called. Lot owners – defined as people who have purchased lots or inherited lots where loved ones are buried – also elected Kathy Hughes, Jeremy Hayes, Sabrina Brown-Engram, Michele Hart and Freddie Hamilton as volunteer trustees. The trustees then elected Hughes as vice-president, Hamilton as treasurer, and Hart as secretary.
The new board has a complementary mix of backgrounds, including in small business, Fortune 500 companies, nonprofit management, construction and cemetery operations, Anderson said.
“We have, I think, a very large and experienced, diverse board that represents the community,” he said. “And we’re looking to expand that over the coming year.”
Under state law, when a nonprofit cemetery (as opposed to a religious, private, or family cemetery) is abandoned by its board of trustees, the city where the cemetery is located must take over the cemetery. exploitation. But New Forest is located in the city of Utica, so the law doesn’t apply, leaving New Forest in a loophole.
The old council had reached an agreement to let the council at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo run New Forest. But New Forest took out two loans totaling almost $185,000 from its permanent maintenance fund and Forest Lawn was unwilling to take on the debt.
Buttenschon introduced legislation allowing councils caring for cemeteries like New Forest to apply to the state for funding, which would have taken care of the debt. It passed through the Assembly and the Senate, but with an amendment. The Assembly ran out of time to approve the amendment before the end of the legislative session.
Buttenschon has expressed a willingness to reintroduce the legislation if the new council wishes.
But five of the new members ran as part of two candidate lists, each offering their own plan to run the cemetery. A list included Lancaster, Hayes and Hart; the other included Hamilton and Hughes. Brown-Engram, a mental health counselor and small business owner, volunteered for the board and offered her husband for the interview.
The plans for the two slates had much in common, including the intention to run the cemetery locally without bringing in outside advice; a plan to pay off debt; a wish to lead the board with transparency; a call for inclusion and community engagement; recognition of the need for more marketing; a call for funds and a project to renovate and rent a caretaker’s house on the property.
Lancaster, the owner of two small businesses and a former Fortune 500 executive of Ballston Spa, had studied cemetery finances two years ago as an adviser to a then-formed council that included his late aunt Linna Miller. . The family has around 40 members buried in New Forest, he said.
Lancaster’s suggestions highlighted the need for volunteers, instead of letting a handful of board members run the entire cemetery, and floated suggestions such as robotic mowing to help with the cemetery’s biggest expenses. .
The old council invested in equipment, including a tractor to dig graves in the house, Lancaster said. And now there is a cash balance.
“We’re in a much better position now, moving forward,” he said, “than two years ago.”
The cemetery, operated with small surpluses in 2019, 2020 and 2021, said Kerry Forezzi, accountant associated with the cemetery division.
Here is his breakdown of finances:
- The cemetery’s general operating fund, into which revenues are paid and from which expenses are paid, contains approximately $37,000.
- The cemetery has three trust funds left by family members so that the interest can be used for specific purposes specified by those family members. Principal cannot be spent.
- The cemetery’s permanent maintenance fund generates about $24,000 a year in interest. Capital cannot be spent. Ten percent of each lot sale and a portion of each burial fee must be paid into this fund.
- The cemetery is approximately 37 acres with approximately 9 acres that cannot be developed. The rest could contain between 600 and 800 burial plots per acre so, with 43 burials last year, there are still plenty of lots to sell. Forezzi estimated the value of the unsold land at nearly $10 million.
The numbers show the cemetery, with the board “upright and impatient”, is changing in the way it is run and a successful check could successfully move forward, Forezzi said.
New Forest opened in 1887 next to the already existing Forest Hills Cemetery, although no one is quite sure why, Hayes said. He always served all the cultures of Utica, he said, including an Armenian circle; a Bosnian Muslim section; the tomb and a large monument to Justus Rathbone, founder of the Knights of Pythias; the grave of Civil War Union Brevet Brigadier General Rufus Daggett; and the grave of “Mother” Elizabeth Lavender, an evangelist born into slavery and known for depriving herself to feed the hungry.
The Hamilton group proposed to reinstate a fundraiser named for Mother Lavender to raise funds for the cemetery and local food pantries.