The Missoula City Cemetery’s proposal to offer expanded services to the public – including monument sales, placement and cleaning – ran aground Monday night amid questions about local government competing with private businesses that offer the same services.
Rather than voting on the cemetery’s request, Missoula City Council members said they have too many unanswered questions and want the plan to make another pass through their Conservation Committee.
The turnaround came after a crowd of commenters representing the Missoula Chamber of Commerce, Garden City Funeral Home, Sunset Memorial Cemetery and several monument companies criticized the proposal as unfair and potentially devastating to local businesses.
The clincher, though, came when Councilwoman Marilyn Marler asked cemetery director Ron Regan where he would purchase the monuments ordered through the city.
“Idaho, Colorado, Washington,” he said.
Chortles and a few gasps came from the audience. Marler couldn’t conceal her disdain. “Okay,” she said. “I look forward to continuing this conversation in committee.”
Councilwoman Julie Armstrong quickly asked that the agenda item be returned to committee.
In presenting the request, cemetery administrative manager Mary Ellen Stubb said the proposed expansion came at the request of the public.
“We are not opening a monument business of any kind,” she emphasized. “We are simply responding to requests from the community for affordable options.”
One of those options would allow families to order a monument through the city cemetery, which Stubb said could provide less costly grave markers through licensed monument companies.
“The public asked for this service,” she repeated.
Later, Regan revealed that those less costly companies were located out of state. Missoula has several companies that manufacture and sell graveside monuments, placing them at the cemetery and offering contracts to keep them clean and in good repair.
Under the city cemetery’s proposal, the city would also begin offering optional monument-cleaning contracts, and would install all monuments. In addition, it would inscribe the niches where cremated remains are sometimes placed in the columbarium.
Cemetery board members said the changes are needed not only to meet public demand, but because private companies have not provided good quality service.
“We have tried to work with the monument companies,” said Mary Lou Cordis, who has served on the cemetery board for 40 years. “It’s been a nightmare.”
The problems date back to 2005, said board member Paul Filicetti. Improperly placed monuments can shift, or encroach on other gravesites. They can change the cemetery’s layout and aesthetics or make adjacent graves unmarketable.
“Providing these services is good stewardship,” he said.
Said cemetery board chairwoman Pam Seeberger: “We strive to end the continuing issues that we have no control over now, but that we are held responsible for by the public.”
Opponents, however, denied problems with work quality by the private sector and decried the city’s use of its tax-exempt status and taxpayer funding to undercut Missoula businesses.
Rick Evans, who owns Garden City Funeral Home, Sunset Memorial Cemetery and a monument business, said his team immediately addresses any problems with monuments. There is no lengthy delay, as alleged by city staff, he said.
The lost revenues caused by the city entering the monument business would cost a number of Garden City employees their jobs, he cautioned.
“I pay a lot of taxes to the city,” Evans said. “It’s just not fair to have revenue taken away from us and still have to pay taxes.”
Evans reminded council members that he absorbs the cost of indigent burials in Missoula. “I don’t ask the city for that money,” he said. “I take care of those burials.”
Robert Jordan, owner of Garden City Monument Services, said his company “strives for perfection in our workmanship.”
“I’ve been in this business for over 40 years,” he said. “The service we provide is, we provide the legacy people want for their loved ones.”
The Missoula City Cemetery, he said, “should focus on running and maintaining the cemetery.”
One of the cemetery’s proposals – to reduce the price of grave liners purchased directly from the city – would drastically undercut local businesses, Jordan said. While the city could sell concrete liners for $600, local businesses charge more than $900, according to a city report.
Clint Burson, director of government affairs for the Missoula Chamber of Commerce, urged the council to deny the cemetery’s request. If not, then council members should at least insist that the city purchase all its monuments from local businesses, he said.
“The Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce believes the best outcome would be for the Missoula City Cemetery to abandon plans for selling monuments to consumers and continue to let the private sector meet that need,” he said. “This benefits the community by contributing to the local economy and by providing jobs.
“If the city chooses to move forward with plans to allow monument sales at the cemetery, the Chamber would prefer to see the ordinances amended to provide a more level playing field – free of conflicts of interest – to ensure private sector businesses can compete fairly with a taxpayer-subsidized entity.”
Burson said he heard “no compelling reason” given by cemetery staff for the city “to get involved in this industry and take business away from tax-paying businesses that contribute to the local economy.”
“As the Chamber stated in a previous letter, the revenue generated through the selling of monuments at the cemetery will not offset the losses to the local economy from these businesses having to close or decrease their staff,” Burson said.
If monument businesses are violating cemetery rules, there is a codified process for dealing with those issues, he added. “The vendor must return, fix the violation and have the work signed off by cemetery staff.” Use that process, he urged, or amend the process.
“It would be better for all involved to abandon the plan to sell monuments and keep the cemetery staff focused on maintenance and care of the cemetery grounds,” Burson said. “Small businesses should get support from their local government, not competition.”
Missoula has four cemeteries: the city cemetery established in 1884; St. Mary’s Cemetery, established by the Catholic Church in 1884; Sunset Memorial Gardens Cemetery, which opened on Mullan Road in 1953; and the Western Montana Veterans Cemetery, which opened in 2008.
The Conservation Committee will again take up the city cemetery’s requests on Aug. 23.
Sherry Devlin is a longtime Missoula journalist who writes occasional stories for Missoula Current and produces the Montana Today e-newsletter.