Three local cemeteries will die without new tax revenue

Exeter Public Cemetery District’s Measure U asks voters in Exeter, Farmersville and surrounding towns to approve a $35 per parcel tax to prevent three cemeteries from closing and preserve local history

EXETER – Three local cemeteries are going to die unless the public is willing to dig into their pockets and pay a little more.

The Exeter Public Cemetery District oversees three separate cemeteries including Exeter Cemetery, Deep Creek Cemetery in Farmersville and Hamilton Cemetery off Avenue 310 between Exeter and Woodlake.

Now, for the first time in its history, the district’s board of directors is asking the public to pay a little less than $3 per month to restore the three cemeteries, save the stewards of local families’ final resting places and ensure future generations can connect with the town and family histories. 

Earlier this year, the Exeter Cemetery District board unanimously approved placing a tax measure on the June 7 Primary Election ballot to help the aging cemeteries which are now more than 100 years old. Measure U is a special parcel tax of $35 per year assessed on each of the 8,200 properties within the district boundaries. The tax is a flat, per parcel rate, meaning large landowners will not be taxed more than small land owners unless they own multiple parcels. If two-thirds of voters pass the parcel tax, it would take effect on July 1, 2022.

Without the additional tax revenue, the district says it may only be able to operate five more years before it runs out of funds.

“If that happens, our communities will lose a big piece of our history and our families will lose a local, cost-effective way to respectfully lay their loved ones to rest,” reads the argument in favor of the measure on the June 7 ballot. 

Public cemeteries are special tax districts separate from the cities they are located in. They operate as enterprise funds, meaning they primarily rely on services to fund day-to-day operations, and get a small portion of property tax revenue from the 8,200 parcels within the district. They do not receive any money from the county or the cities they serve.

“A lot of people don’t understand we are not part of the city or the county,” board member Ron Faulkner said. “We want to make sure people know this is a special district, completely separate from anything else.”

The cemetery district began struggling about 14 years ago as many families began shifting away from traditional and increasingly expensive burials in favor of more affordable cremations. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, the average cost of a burial ranges between $7,000 and $12,000 while the average cost of cremation services is $1,000 to $3,000. Less than one-third of families chose traditional burials in 2021.

Burial services and the sale of plots, vaults and casket liners are the primary source of revenue for the district. The number of burials had dropped from 200 to 122 since 2017 at the Exeter Cemetery while Deep Creek and Hamilton combined had just five burials in the last five years, according to the district’s annual audits. The district increased prices in order to avoid a property tax measure but could not raise them too high for fear of losing burials to larger cemeteries in the area.

In 2008, the cemetery took a $61,000 loss for the first time in many years. Since then the district has continued to take a loss year over year with the budget gap growing to more than $80,000 in 2016. In all, the district has taken a nearly $800,000 hit to its budget from 2008 until 2020. In order to continue operating, the cemetery board and district superintendent made difficult decisions to keep the doors open. Throughout that time, the district has laid off staff, reduced maintenance and upkeep of the grounds, deferred equipment replacement and reduced other expenses as far as they could while still being able to provide basic burial services.

“We’ve cut everyone you can cut and there isn’t anything left to cut,” Faulkner said. “If someone has a better idea I sure wish they’d have shared it by now.”

Erica Pine, the certified public accountant for the cemeteries, said the district determined in 2020 it could only continue operation for about two more years before it was out of money. In early 2021, Faulkner said the board began serious discussions about placing a tax measure on the ballot.

“This board came in and has done a good job of trying to make it work but we all saw the writing on the wall,” Faulkner said. “Nobody likes taxes but we don’t see another way to do that.

It took a global pandemic to buy the district enough time for a parcel tax to take effect. In 2021, the district made money for the first time in 15 years netting over $152,000 due to a spike in deaths during the pandemic. Since June, these numbers have returned to historical averages down 38% from last February but it was enough to delay the demise of the cemetery by five years.

The only other source of revenue is the property taxes it receives from the rate set up when the special tax district was formed more than 100 years ago. That only amounts to $75,000 per year which covers less than a quarter of annual expenses for the district. 

The district does have a Cemetery Endowment Fund that has $463,435 in it, but is only allowed to spend the interest income earned from the fund, which is less than $10,000 per year. Under state law, special tax districts must establish endowment funds which can be used to pay off bills and continue operations under state control if the district were to fold.

“We have asked people for ideas in the past and we have tried everything,” Faulkner said. “This is our best shot at keeping these cemeteries alive.”

Measure U
Measure U will provide the district with an estimated $270,000 per year based on $35 per parcel for about 8,000 pieces of property in the district, which encompasses the communities of Exeter, Farmersville, Lemon Cove, Lindcove, Deep Creek and Yokohl Valley. The parcel tax measure also includes a 2.5% annual increase in the rate to ensure revenues keep up with inflation. The money will allow the district to accomplish two main goals to stabilize its ability to continue offering services and generate income. The first is opening up a new section of the Exeter Cemetery with more than 2,500 gravesites. The Exeter Cemetery currently has just 70 gravesites left and there is no water at the Deep Creek Cemetery. Without the new tax revenue the district will only be able to accommodate burials at the Hamilton Cemetery, its smallest cemetery. The cost of installing irrigation, planting grass and trees and laying out plots is estimated to cost about $200,000.

The other major project is to drill a new well at Deep Creek Cemetery. The Farmersville cemetery is just dirt and weeds because its well went dry in 2014. In 2018, the district was estimating it would cost $40,000 to drill a new well but the cost has undoubtedly risen in the last five years especially with the recent increase in inflation. Having a new well would allow burials to continue at Deep Creek. 

Other costs which will benefit all three cemeteries include projects to improve accessibility and safety, replace worn out equipment and improve maintenance of the irrigation systems and landscape.

The new funds will allow the district to spend its current income sources on hiring new personnel. The district currently has just three employees maintaining three cemeteries. All three employees are needed to do a single burial making it difficult for the staff to handle other administrative and maintenance duties without incurring huge overtime costs. The cuts have forced the district to only offer weekday burials, which they realize are inconvenient for families, especially those traveling from out of town. 

The measure will also set up a Community Advisory Oversight Committee to review district expenditures and ensure the money goes toward funding these projects and improving burial services to local families. The cemetery board will appoint people living within the district to sit on the committee tasked with making an annual report to the public on how the property tax proceeds were spent. 

The measure is supported on the ballot by all three members of the cemetery board, Farmersville Mayor Paul Boyer and Supervisor Larry Micari, who represents Exeter, Farmersville and the surrounding areas on the Tulare County Board of Supervisors. 

Start typing and press Enter to search