Missoula City Council drops plan for cemetery to sell, engrave monuments

The Missoula City Cemetery won’t sell headstones and monuments in competition with local businesses, the City Council decided Monday night. (Missoula City Cemetery)

The Missoula City Cemetery won’t get into the monument selling or engraving business, but it will claim exclusive rights to placing those headstones in the ground and to the sale of grave liners.

The decision came Monday night, despite the opposition of five City Council members and the absence of two others, which threw the 5-5 tie vote to Mayor John Engen.

The mayor sided with the city’s cemetery board and staff members, who favored the changes, and against local funeral and monument businesses, who believe the city is encroaching on their livelihoods.

“I’m not convinced this change is needed,” said Ward 6 Councilwoman Michelle Cares. “I will vote no.”

Ward 6 Councilwoman Marilyn Marler first voted a hesitant “yes,” then changed her vote to “no.”

“I had hoped we could come to an agreement,” she said. “It’s disappointing we were not able to get that compromise.”

Ward 4 Councilman Jon Wilkins also changed his vote from “yes” to “no.” Ward 2 Councilwoman Ruth Swaney also voted “no.”

Councilwoman Julie Armstrong, who represents Ward 5, said she was disappointed “by the attitude of some parties. I would have liked a compromise where the customer gets to decide.”

While Armstrong voted “no” on Monday, she hoped the decision was just a starting point for other consumer-friendly changes in the years to come.

Ward 4 Councilman John DiBari, who voted for the changes, also said he considered the ordinance a “starting place.”

Rick Evans, the owner of Garden City Funeral Home and Sunset Memorial Cemetery, objected to the price the city cemetery will charge for concrete liners — $200, which is $600 less than private companies now charge.

“This change affects my cemetery, and St. Mary’s Cemetery and the Western Montana Veterans Cemetery,” Evans said. “If you are going to lower the price, at least let us sell liners at Missoula City Cemetery.”

But Ward 3 Councilwoman Gwen Jones said her “yes” vote was predicated on the service the cemetery provides for local citizens. “The bottom line is the service it provides to the public,” she said.

Under the new ordinance, only the city can set stones and monuments in its cemetery – a task previously handled by the private monument companies.

Earlier this summer, city staff and cemetery board members told the City Council there had been complaints from the public about poorly set monuments and long wait times for engraving.

By turning those tasks over to city staff members, those complaints could be erased, they said.

But Ward 4 City Council candidate Jesse Ramos encouraged the council to vote down the proposal and work on a better way to address the problems.

It is not the job of the city to compete with small businesses, he said. Let the consumer decide, he urged.