Selectman: Amherst cemetery pact unfair to taxpayers

AMHERST – Voters will decide next year whether the town’s cemetery trustees will build the first phase of a new cemetery at Cemetery Fields.

That was one of the few things the Board of Selectmen agreed on last week as they reviewed a draft “memorandum of understanding” between the board and the trustees.

Written by a citizens’ committee, the memorandum is intended to “solve operational and financial discrepancies and disagreements” between the two bodies, said Selectman Brad Galinson, the board’s liaison to the trustees.

But two selectmen said the agreement doesn’t resolve a basic unfairness, in that taxpayers have been paying for annual cemetery maintenance over the past 10 years when the trustees’ funds could easily have paid it, and that under the memorandum, the town would continue to pay.

“I am incredulous, considering how many hundreds of thousands of dollars haven’t been paid in the past. Why citizens will be asked to continue to pay for cemetery maintenance going forward is a bit beyond me,” Mike Akillian said.

The memorandum, he said, “pays no attention … to the past decade and the hundreds of thousands of dollars that Amherst citizens have been asked to pay through the budgets to cover cemetery maintenance … I have a hard time letting that just be water under the bridge.”

Trustees’ funds had plenty of money in them to pay for the maintenance, Akillian said.

That money comes from the sale of cemetery plots, fees and what Galinson called “unidentified trust funds.”

The memorandum “does a very good job of cleaning up the chaos,” Akillian said.

“It doesn’t do a very good job of serving the citizens of Amherst … I have a hard time letting that be water under the bridge,” he said, referring to the tax money that went toward cemetery maintenance.

Cemetery trustees are responsible for 80 percent of the annual cost of maintaining the cemeteries, he said, yet over the past decade, the entire maintenance costs, approximately $40,000 each year, have been coming from the town’s budget.

Many people have contributed to what Akillian called, “this horrible situation,” including the selectmen and the Charitable Trust Division of the state attorney general’s office, which is supposed to review trusts every three years in every city and town and has not done that in Amherst in 20 years, he said.

Galinson, however, cautioned the board that one of the selectmen’s goals is to avoid costly court proceedings if negotiations with trustees fail.

The draft memorandum “doesn’t make either side happy, which is the definition of a compromise,” he said, and it doesn’t bind the board in the future, “it’s just an agreement today on how we’ll work together.

Big issues dealt with in the draft, he said, include where money goes after burial plots are purchased and who pays for cemetery maintenance.

Terry Knowles, head of the Charitable Trust Division, “has publicly stated” that the town has to pay for part of the cemetery maintenance expenses, which had been set at 20 percent, Galinson said.

But, for various reasons, over the past 10 years the trustees have not been contributing their share.

Akillian also took issue with a paragraph in the memorandum that says selectmen and trustees should “support’ using the $160,000 for building Forestview Cemetery at Cemetery Fields, because “the $160,000 should revert back to the town.”

“I think the $160,000 should revert back to the town,” the selectman said. “I would change the word ‘support’ to ‘present’.”

Akillian said that there seems to be an outstanding bill for just less than $32,000 dating back to 2004-05 that would also be written off under the terms of the memorandum, and

“I have a very hard time saying let that all go.” he said.

Selectman John D’Angelo agreed with Akillian. There is a legal statutue of limitations, he said, but “from a fairness point of view … I am not sure I am prepared to say let bygones be bygones.”

Trustees, he said, should consider “what is fair and right” as opposed to “what is legal.”

“One of the serendipitous pieces of information to come out of the committee’s work on the memorandum of understanding, he said, is that there is enough money in the trust funds to build the first phase of Forestview Cemetery and also to pay back maintenance costs over the past 10 years.

Chairman Dwight Brew emphasized that selectmen want to avoid legal expenses and try to find a compromise.

Brew also said selectmen don’t understand where the idea of the town needing to pay 20 percent comes from.

“We need to comply with the law”… but “I am uncomfortable writing in something that obligates the taxpayers to pay for something that they wouldn’t necessarily pay for.”

Selectman Tom Grella, whose wife is one of the three cemetery trustees, was a selectman when trustees asked the town to pay for maintenance.

That was around 2004, he said, and there was an informal agreement among the then-town administrator, one selectman and the trustees.

“Nobody voted on it, and it continued for 10 years,” Grella said.

“We don’t think anything nefarious was going on,” said Galinson, only “a lot of miscommunication.”

Board members agreed not to take a vote on the memorandum and agreed that Galinson will talk to Bill Belvin, one of the cemetery trustees.

Cemetery maintenance fees came under scrutiny during the past year’s conflict between trustees and residents who wanted the town to continue using the Merrimack Road land.

All recreation use ended on Sept. 1 at the insistence of the trustees.

Galinson said the Cemetery Fields issue is not relevant to the memorandum of understanding.

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100, ext. 304, or kcleveland@
cabinet.com.