Exeter Cemetery District buries board restriction

Kirk Gilles being sworn in as the fourth member of the Exeter Cemetery District by Chief Deputy County Counsel Tom Degn on May 8.(Reggie Ellis)

Board expands from three to five members for the first time in its history, avoiding canceled meetings for absences and allowing for committees to dig into problems

EXETER – Having four board members in attendance at a meeting is standard for most public entities, but for the Exeter Cemetery District, it is historic.

At its May 8 meeting, the cemetery board swore in a fourth member for the first time in the district’s 89-year history. The district’s legal counsel, Chief Deputy County Counsel Tom Degn, administered the oath of office for Kirk Gilles, who was appointed to the post by the Tulare County Board of Supervisors last week.

The ceremony was appropriately the first item on the agenda, because without it the meeting would have been canceled for lack of a quorum. When the meeting was called to order, only two of the three members were in attendance, as Trustee Andrea Sousa was unable to make it on time. Normally, that would have been cause to cancel the meeting because public board’s must have at least three members in attendance for tie-breaking votes. A lack of quorum is why the board canceled its last regular meeting in April.

Board President Lori Rhinebeck said the expansion of the board is the linchpin to solving many of the other problems discussed at the meeting and for the last 20 some years. One of the major issues with a three-person board is that it typically takes two trustees to form a committee, but having two discuss items outside of a meeting would violate the Brown Act – California’s open meeting law – because they represent a majority vote of the board.

“It is wonderful,” Rhinebeck said. “Because now we can form committees, like we can have our fundraiser committee, we can have the IT committee so we can start really getting our website and our Facebook page up to par and have an outlet. It’s just going to be fantastic. It’s already been good.”

Gilles and Marci Harness were appointed to fill the new seats by the Tulare County Board of Supervisors on May 7. Harness, a nurse, was unable to get the time off for the meeting and will be sworn in at the cemetery board’s next meeting at 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, June 12 at the district office, 719 E. Marinette Ave. in Exeter.

Gilles retired after more than 30 years in the military and law enforcement. He had applied for two vacancies on local boards in the county, one for erecting and restoring monuments, such as the Peace Officer Memorial in Visalia, and the other for the Exeter Cemetery because of the local history dating back to the Civil War. A resident of Mehrten Valley, Gilles is the first seat on the board with the intent of representing the area where families have been buried at the Hamilton Cemetery located off Avenue 310 between Exeter and Woodlake.

“This is ground zero for history,” Gilles said of cemeteries.

After years of struggling to have a quorum at its meetings and the lack of representation from Farmersville, Mehrten Valley and Lindcove, the cemetery board approved a resolution to expand from three seats to five on Feb. 14. The Board of Supervisors, which makes appointments to fill vacancies on special district boards within the county, approved the expansion at its March 19 meeting.

Chair Larry Micari, who represents the cemetery district on the Board of Supervisors, said he had been working for three years to try and convince the district their board had to create the additional seats on the board before the Supervisors could vote to fill them. It wasn’t until a near complete turnover of the board in February that the district took action to expand.

“They refused time and time again until just recently,” Micari said at the March 19 meeting. “They’re their own entity and they’re the ones that control it. So, I would just like it clarified where the responsibilities lie in the response, because it seems like there’s this misunderstanding that we have control over that board, when we actually do not.”

Expanding the board became the top priority for Rhinebeck when she came onto the board last June. Rhinebeck lives near Deep Creek Cemetery, where some of her ancestors are buried, and was not only urged by neighbors to get on the board and restore the dilapidated cemetery, but also felt a spiritual calling to do that work.

“When people ask me why did I pick this (seat on the board), I laugh and say, ‘I didn’t pick it, it picked me,” Rhinebeck said.

The missing piece was a third board member who shared her vision for change. That came earlier this year when Stefanie Nelson, who also lives near the Deep Creek Cemetery in Farmersville, was appointed to the board in February.

“For me it was Deep Creek, and the way it looked,” Nelson said.

Digging Into Issues

The newly expanded board quickly made progress on many of the issues plaguing its aging cemeteries. The only well at Deep Creek Cemetery in Farmersville went dry in 2014 and now the cemetery is overrun with stickers and weeds. The is no drivable road, making it even more inaccessible to families, and its lone electrical panel has been out of commission for years. The issues are similar at Hamilton, where the well is working and there is grass but the district does not have the manpower and equipment to routinely mow and edge. It also lacks a road to be more accessible for those with walkers and wheelchairs.

The board heard a presentation from Dan Veyna of Sierra Designs, Inc. about creating a master plan to redesign both cemeteries. Veyna said his company has worked with Farmersville for the last 18 years and has designed its sports park and the entrance to the city at the Farmersville Boulevard interchange currently under construction on Highway 198. He was also part of the formation of the Exeter Mural Committee and helped design Mixter Park at the center of downtown. After recent trips to both cemeteries, Veyna said there is a serenity to Hamilton’s rolling hills, nestled between the orange groves and popping with wildflowers, while Deep Creek could be a peaceful park-like setting within the city of Farmersville bracketed by mature valley oak trees.

“The views are just stunning,” Veyna said.

The design costs were estimated at $5,000 each for Deep Creek and Hamilton. Rhinebeck said the district already has about $10,000 in donations pledged to help revive both cemeteries if there is a plan in place to do so.

“There’s some people that have expressed interest that said if this is the route (the board members) want to take, then they would be interested in a paying, but they didn’t want to commit to the money if this wasn’t going to be a board decision to proceed with long-range plans,” she said.

Legal counsel Tom Degn suggested setting up a revolving fund with the county, allowing the district to pay bills faster than waiting for disbursements of tax revenue to work their way through county offices and processes. Rhinebeck asked Degn to bring back a resolution to establish a revolving fund to avoid payment delays. The board could then approve the landscape architecture proposals by Sierra Designs establishing a vision and plan for both cemeteries and begin accepting donations, such as community members sponsoring benches, trees or other features. These could offset the costs of restoring the two, smaller cemeteries and solve the district’s greatest need, which is more revenue.

That’s not to say the board hasn’t made attempts to increase revenue in the past. The district has unsuccessfully attempted to pass a special parcel tax measure twice in the last two years to increase its revenue. Measure U, which would have assessed $35 per year per parcel, needed a two-thirds majority to pass but only garnered 61% of the vote in June 2022 and 53% in November 2022. If passed, the tax would generate an estimated $270,000 per year for the cemetery district with an annual increase of 2.5% to keep up with inflation.

Dwight Miller, who spearheaded his own changes reimagining the Exeter museum and gallery, said one of the complaints about the parcel tax came from property holders who own multiple parcels without residences, such as commercial orchards. For example, a farmer may own five or 10 parcels in the district, only one of which has a residence.

“They had properties where nobody’s going to die or need to be buried,” Miller said.

Degn said the district is considering a third attempt to pass the parcel tax but could create a waiver for those who own adjacent properties to only be taxed on one of them.

“The language should be the same, except we have this provision that says those that have contiguous properties can apply for this waiver to be treated as one (property),” Degn said. He said he would return with a draft resolution outlining the new language for the parcel tax measure.

The board also directed Degn to draft a resolution to form a five-member advisory committee. It was suggested the committee be comprised of two people from Exeter, two from Farmersville and one from the areas of Mehrten Valley, Venice Hill, Lindcove and Lemon Cove to not only help spread the word about the parcel tax once it is approved but also to help raise donations and contributions for the reclamation projects at Deep Creek and Hamilton cemeteries. The committee was originally to be formed as a committee to oversee expenditures of tax money collected through Measure U but would now be formed as an advisory committee separate from the tax measure, although they could still play that role.

The board also heard a report from district Superintendent Rick Martinez on equipment and personnel needed to keep up with the landscaping. He said the district needed to hire another groundskeeper immediately after a member of his crew had recently accepted another job. The district also needs a new trailer to haul equipment between the three cemeteries and back up mower, which would eliminate maintenance delays when one breaks down.

Gilles requested a more detailed description of the items on the list so that board members could have more specifics when looking for people to donate equipment or finding equipment to purchase online.

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