MERIDEN — As the City Council continues to grapple with how to run East Cemetery going forward, the city manager this week offered to study the issue and make recommendations within 30 days.
City Manager Tim Coon plans to provide recommendations on how to address a litany of issues associated with the cemetery, which is owned by the city and hasn’t had an official caretaker since the 1960s. Those issues include, among others, establishing rules and regulations for cemetery operations, repairing damage to monuments, headstones, and other features, and addressing a groundhog infestation.
Coon offered to take on the task during a meeting this week after councilors expressed frustration that a cemetery task force the council created in August 2017 failed to meet its charge by submitting a formal report of recommendations.
The volunteer task force, made up of seven residents appointed by the mayor, was charged with reviewing a “Cemetery Needs Assessment” performed in 2017 by a private consultant and recommending maintenance and regulations for city-owned cemeteries, including East Cemetery. The council, which gave the task force a deadline of July 2018 for providing a report, also charged the task force with recommending whether to reopen East Cemetery to new burials or maintain it as a historic site and make recommendations for establishing a formal cemetery association that would oversee city-owned cemeteries.
The task force ultimately got derailed and failed to produce a report due to low attendance at meetings, Councilor Cathy Battista, who chairs the council’s parks committee, said during the joint meeting this week between her committee and the council's Finance Committee.
“The individuals who were on this committee were certainly excited about working on something like this from day one. And shortly after that, we had many meetings where there was not a quorum,” Battista said during the meeting this week. “We had a committee chair that stepped down for issues that I’d rather not say. A second committee chair that stepped forward had to step down for another reason, and it was very frustrating I think for everyone.”
Without formal recommendations, Councilor Brian Daniels said the council is “back to square one” with the issue, which the council has discussed for several years now.
“We love when people volunteer for committees ...but we’re having a discussion about all the things we charged the cemetery committee with doing a year and a half ago,” Daniels, chairman of the Finance Committee, said during the meeting. “One of the things they were charged with was making recommendations on the rules and regulations of the operation of the cemetery. We should have proposed rules and regulations before us already.”
“Looking over the records of the (task force), I literally had nothing to work from,” Coon told councilors. “However, I’m sure there was a lot of good work done by the committee, it just didn’t land on my desk.”
The task force was initially formed, in part, so that the council wouldn’t have to put the work on the city manager, however, Coon said making the recommendations “won’t be too heavy of a lift.”
One of the main issues the task force was supposed to address was whether the city should keep the cemetery closed to new burials and maintain it as a historical site or reopen it to new burials, which some have said could produce net revenue if the city chose to invest in making site improvements. The last burials at the cemetery, Coon said, occurred around the 1980s. The cemetery has the capacity for more burials, though it’s unclear how many exactly.
Coon is recommending the council keep the cemetery closed and said common practice for municipalities is to have a cemetery association appoint a sexton to maintain it, probably for a small stipend from the city. By taking on the task of making recommendations himself, rather than forming another task force, Coon hopes to expedite the process.
“I don't see any reason why this can't be accomplished before the end of this year,” Coon said about forming a cemetery association and appointing a sexton.
East Cemetery, one of four owned by the city, is located just east of Parker Avenue. The city did not realize it owned the cemetery property until 2009, when the Law Department completed a search for a land title and realized two cemetery landowners deeded their land to then-selectmen in 1845.
The historic cemetery is home to some notable Meriden figures, including the city's first elected mayor, businessman Charles Parker, and two other mayors, Levi Elmore Coe and George Seeley. The cemetery is also home to about 60 veterans dating back to the French and Indian War, according to the report produced by the private consultant in 2017.
The city in recent years has annually budgeted $5,000 for maintenance of East Cemetery, which Coon says goes toward mowing the grass. But the cemetery is in need of major, “big dollar” repairs, Batittisa said, including repairs to the arch at the cemetery's entrance.
“The city has never spent money on these cemeteries for years and years. And I’m not saying it’s anyone’s particular fault, things happen, but it’s time to move forward because it’s a mess,” she said.
We the People Councilor Walter Shamock, whose son Gary served on the task force, emphasized the need to repair damaged monuments.
“It’s a shame that really prominent citizens who made their mark in Meriden are being disrespected,” Shamock said. “So I don’t know how the hell you find the money, but something has to be done.”