BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — In a gathering described as monumental and impressive, leaders from Waterville, Waterville Township and Whitehouse met on October 23 and agreed to quickly move forward on a shared plan to manage five area cemeteries.
The only township-owned cemetery is a tiny, closed one on Winslow Road. For years, however, township maintenance employees have mowed, trimmed and maintained the cemeteries in exchange for keeping the fees from opening and closing graves at Wakeman and Whitehouse cemeteries.
Township trustee Brett Warner and fiscal officer Jennifer Bingham both shared how fees aren’t covering the costs for Richard Ludwig and Andy Artiaga to spend about 55 percent of their overall time on cemeteries. In addition, the two active cemeteries need road repairs and other capital improvements.
So earlier this summer, Warner approached Waterville administrator Jim Bagdonas and Whitehouse administrator Jordan Daugherty about options. One idea quickly rose to the top: a union cemetery similar to one formed with Perrysburg and Perrysburg Township in 1877.
A union cemetery is a separate political subdivision, governed by a board with members from each municipality and abiding by real estate and consumer spending laws. A clerk would track day-to-day expenses, and existing employees could submit their work hours to be paid out of the union cemetery fund.
Based on anticipated expenses, the board would set the amount of the inside millage to be collected from property owners’ annual taxes, explained Waterville’s solicitor, Phil Dombey. Inside millage is un-voted property tax authorized by the Ohio Constitution and established by the General Assembly.
Using a projected $70,000 to $120,000 a year to cover the costs of the employees’ wages and benefits, capital improvements and equipment repairs, plus income of about $25,000 from plot purchases and fees, Bagdonas estimates a need for $103,000. This would require .35 mills, which would cost the owner of an average Waterville home, currently $186,000, about $23.15 a year.
When he learned that residents wouldn’t have an opportunity to vote on the matter, Whitehouse council member Richard Bingham said that it’s “taxation without representation,” especially considering the number of other taxes residents are asked to pay.
“We (Whitehouse) have money to pay for it, and we’re going to tax our citizens again, when they’re being asked to approve a tax for a jail and so many other things. Where does it end?” he said.
The majority disagreed with Bingham, calling the care of the cemeteries a community service.
“It’s the duty of the governmental body to take care of those who have gone before us,” said Dombey, who spoke emotionally about families visiting cemeteries to pay respect to veterans from the Civil War through the war in Afghanistan. “Cemeteries are where those families go to remember their loved ones.”
Whitehouse Mayor Don Atkinson agreed, noting that his family visits a Kentucky graveyard where his father and grandfather, both veterans, are buried.
Waterville council member Tim Pedro said he doesn’t like to be taxed, but municipalities are expected to be stewards of funds and use them wisely. He suggested looking for grants to care for the graves of the many veterans in each of the cemeteries.
“We need to look at solutions and work in the spirit of forming a district,” Pedro said.
While Waterville council member Barb Bruno said she’d like a cost analysis before making a decision, Mayor Lori Brodie and Bagdonas agreed with Jennifer Bingham that solid numbers aren’t available, as the maintenance workers didn’t begin recording how much time they spent on the cemeteries and other duties until this year, and they still don’t record how much work is done at each cemetery. When Jennifer Bingham took over the job in December 2017, she found that many of the records were difficult to track.
In preparation for the meeting, Brodie spent time with Ludwig, who joined the township in 1985 and serves as sexton. He is in charge of tracking available spaces, ownership, the opening and closing of graves and the location of each family’s grave markers.
Wakeman is by far the largest cemetery. Although the first and second additions are full, the third has 200 spots remaining, and the fourth, if platted, could hold up to 400 more 4-foot by 10-foot plots, Ludwig estimated. Whitehouse is the second largest and remains open. Three closed cemeteries include the township-owned one on Winslow, the Whitehouse-owned Men-nonite Cemetery on Finzel and Rupp Cemetery at the corner of Cemetery and Weckerly roads.
With a positive response to the formation of a union cemetery, each municipality nominated members to form a subcommittee, including Rod Frey of Waterville, Bagdonas, Louann Artiaga and Rebecca Conklin Kleiboemer of Whitehouse, and Jennifer Bingham and Warner from the township. The group planned to meet on October 25 and return soon to their respective councils to outline a plan. Afterward, each municipality will seek more public input.
Whitehouse Council member Mindy Curry said she’s already received positive feedback from residents who want to see better care taken of the cemeteries. That can be done with more reliable funds, she believes.
The plan calls for the union cemetery board to hire Ludwig and Artiaga as contract workers for the time spent on cemeteries. In the meantime, both Brodie and Whitehouse representatives promised to lend people or equipment to help care for the cemeteries.
The spirit of cooperation between the entities is encouraging, Warner said.
Whitehouse council president Bill May agreed.
“We should do this more often,” he said.