Grand County Cemetery Maintenance District employees Bob Birmingham, left, and Andrew Stiles repair a shoddy valve at the Grand Valley Cemetery on Wednesday, Sept. 2. "Dealing with 60-year-old plumbing is not any fun," Birmingham said. "This stuff has been here longer than I've been alive." To pay for improvements to the cemetery's water line and other maintenance headaches at the six cemeteries it cares for, the district is asking the Grand County Council to approve a resolution that would increase its certified tax rate by 47.18 percent. [Photo by Rudy Herndon / Moab Sun News]

The Grand County Cemetery Maintenance District spends more money on a former employee’s retirement benefits in a four-year period than it does on annual capital improvement costs, leaving it with that much less funding to upgrade its aging infrastructure.

To raise more money for new fencing, equipment, road work and other projects, the district is asking the Grand County Council to consider a resolution that would approve a 47.18 percent increase in the district’s certified tax rate.

“With the budget we currently have and the tax revenue we currently have, we can only maintain the status quo,” Grand County Cemetery Maintenance District Manager and Sexton Robert Buckingham told the council on Tuesday, Sept. 1.

But council members say they want to hear from local residents before they take any action on the proposal, which would increase property taxes on a $200,000 home by 68 cents per month, raising an extra countywide total of $100,000 a year.

The council voted unanimously this week to postpone consideration of Buckingham’s request until its next meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 15, when it can solicit public feedback on the resolution.

Council members previously held off on an identical request from Buckingham, and instead asked him last month to begin the process to place a related question on voters’ Nov. 3 ballots.

However, when Buckingham returned to the council this week, he said that time constraints and a limited advertising campaign budget kept the district from doing so.

Buckingham appeared to sound fatalistic about the chances that voters would approve the ballot question.

“All they would see is a tax increase,” he said.

But Grand County Council member Lynn Jackson said he believes that Buckingham made a compelling argument in support of funding for cemetery improvement projects, and questioned why the proposal shouldn’t go directly to voters.

“Nobody in the community is really aware of this need,” Jackson said. “I would like to hear from some of our constituents.”

The cemetery district has not increased its certified tax rate in 20 years, and according to Buckingham, its operating expenses have continued to climb.

By his estimates, $193,700 of the $287,700 budget that his predecessor submitted goes to district employees’ benefits and salaries; a retired sexton alone earns more than $11,000 a year in benefits, he said.

“They’re a huge chunk (of) our annual budget, and that will not go away,” he said.

After operating expenses and other costs, he said the district is left with just over $42,000 to make capital improvements at the six cemeteries it maintains in Grand County, including locations as far-flung as Elgin.

As it is, the Grand Valley Cemetery doesn’t have to worry about maintaining any entrance gates: It doesn’t have any.

Without any gates, Buckingham said that Fourth of July revelers and others have been free to drive through the cemetery at night, leaving the district’s staff to clean up after them. Old fencing and a 60-year-old plumbing system are another maintenance problem at the Grand Valley Cemetery, as is the district’s fleet of maintenance vehicles – all of which are at least 15 years old, Buckingham said.

“We have (six) cemeteries in our district to take care of, and to do burials in, yet I do not currently own one piece of equipment that I would feel comfortable letting my crew drive to these outlying cemeteries,” he said in a memo to the council.

Since the district is prohibited by law from turning to the county’s road department for help with its roads, Buckingham said they have not been graveled since his previous stint as sexton some 16 years ago.

“Just plain things like gravel we can’t afford now,” he said.

In the future, he said, the district must be prepared to grow.

“There is always going to be a need to improve upon the land and expand,” he said.

Grand County Council member Ken Ballantyne said he believes that the cemetery district’s employees do a marvelous job with the resources that are available to them, and acknowledged that a tax hike would benefit the district.

“I don’t like raising taxes, but at times, there is a need,” Ballantyne said.

But Grand County Council chair Elizabeth Tubbs questioned why the district needs an additional $100,000 in perpetuity.

“One of my concerns is that a tax like this is forever,” she said.

Grand County Council vice chair Chris Baird agreed that the proposed increase would add up over the long term.

“I’m a little bit with Liz in that $100,000 a year sounds like a lot to go into capital improvements,” he said.

Although Baird said he believes the numbers that Buckingham presented seem “somewhat arbitrary,” he agreed that something needs to be done. But he said he would struggle to explain the district’s needs to his constituents, based on the information he’s received so far.

“At this point, I’m like, ‘Well, they just need to do some stuff,’” he said.

County wants local input after district says money is needed for its aging infrastructure

Nobody in the community is really aware of this need … I would like to hear from some of our constituents.