Cemetery upkeep causes controversy

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RAMP, a group of citizens questioning the upkeep of Austin cemeteries, is currently involved in a debate with cemetary management over whether or not cemetary conditions are substandard.

Photo Credit: Nicole Collins | Daily Texan Staff

Despite dissent from some citizens, city officials are finding cemetery conditions up to par.

Sharon Blythe, director of Rescue Austin Memorial Parks, is leading a group of residents in challenging city council members to reconsider management of cemeteries. Blythe said the group, nicknamed RAMP, was formed in 1991 when citizens became concerned over whether cemetery property would be sold to developers.

She said group members believe property upkeep is substandard and are worried about overall maintenance of the five Austin memorial parks.

“It’s becoming a public safety hazard now,” Blythe said. “The trees are dying. The headstones are leaning and fall over quite frequently. There was even a lady who broke her leg out there a couple years ago.”

Blythe said RAMP members are filing complaints and requesting systematic maintenance of the cemeteries. She hopes council members will consider ending the current management contract with the Intercare Corporation, which has managed the Austin city cemeteries since 1990.

Intercare Corporation director Gene Bagwell said his organization has followed all procedures laid out in its contract in terms of maintenance, burials and expenses. Bagwell said the city works separately with arborists for tree care.

According to the contract, Intercare’s upkeep responsibilities do not include “the maintenance, repair or replacement of any memorial or curbing placed or erected upon any grave or space.”

Bagwell said private families are responsible for repair of headstones at their own expense and Intercare addresses gravesite concerns brought forth by the family or responsible party.

“If a family comes back and addresses the issue of a fallen headstone, it’s fixed,” Bagwell said. “The reality is, some families move away and may not be aware of the condition it’s in.”

Bagwell said settling of burial plots occurs naturally, especially with burials conducted prior to the use of concrete casket liners. Occasionally headstones will crack or appear unlevel because of ground settling, he said.

Bagwell also said his corporation has spent more than usual on ground watering since the drought began.

Gilbert Hernandez, parks and recreation contract manager, said the city conducts semi-monthly inspections of all five cemeteries and has not found anything out of the ordinary in terms of upkeep.

Hernandez said the most recent audit of Intercare’s expenses came back “clean,” but Blythe said RAMP members are also concerned with the actual use of cemetery funding.

“We look for issues that we think might be of concern,” Hernandez said. “We track any issue that needs to be taken care of and have a third party auditor go out and look at his [Bagwell’s] books.”

Printed on September 8, 2011 as: Citizens concerned about local cemetary conditions