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Our Opinion: Why won’t Wilson take charge of its public cemeteries?

Posted on May 5, 2022

OpinionEditorials
Wilson Appearance Commission members plant trees on the Rest Haven Cemetery grounds in December 2014. The Wilson Cemetery Commission oversees the Rest Haven and Maplewood cemeteries, but unlike the appearance commission and Wilson’s 16 other appointed advisory boards, the cemetery panel’s volunteer members supervise paid employees and maintain financial accounts separate from the city of Wilson.

Gray Whitley | Times file photo

Wilson Appearance Commission members plant trees on the Rest Haven Cemetery grounds in December 2014. The Wilson Cemetery Commission oversees the Rest Haven and Maplewood cemeteries, but unlike the appearance commission and Wilson’s 16 other appointed advisory boards, the cemetery panel’s volunteer members supervise paid employees and maintain financial accounts separate from the city of Wilson.

Before they can defend the Maplewood and Rest Haven cemeteries’ continued separation from city government, officials must answer one question: Why cemeteries and not electric, water and broadband?

The autonomous Wilson Cemetery Commission manages — and over the years has been left to mismanage — the hallowed ground that serves as tens of thousands of Wilsonians’ final resting place. But the City Council chose not to establish an independent commission for its public utilities.

Seventy-five miles south on Interstate 95, residents in a public power community just like ours don’t bring service complaints or billing disputes to City Hall. Electric customers deal with the Fayetteville Public Works Commission, a five-member appointed body tasked with overseeing the municipal electric company. Like Wilson’s cemetery panel, Fayetteville’s commission operates outside elected officials’ direct control, though in both cities, council members appoint the commissioners.

Charlie Farris, the former cemetery commission chairman who stepped down when his second term expired in March, has asked Wilson to take charge of its public cemeteries instead of leaving the responsibility to appointed volunteers. City officials have done nothing to answer the request and seem content to let the burial grounds languish in bureaucratic limbo.

GUEST COLUMN: Wilson's cemeteries need city oversight 

Councilmen Tom Fyle and Derrick Creech pledged to research the matter when Farris quizzed council hopefuls during an April 20 candidate forum at Wilson Community College. Time will tell whether they keep that commitment. If a reorganization fails to materialize on the council’s agenda, constituents will rightly feel duped.

The cemetery commission operates independently because it’s chartered under a 1923 state statute that says its members “shall have the exclusive control and management” of facilities entrusted to the panel and “shall have the power to employ a superintendent and such assistants as may be needed.”

Wilson isn’t handcuffed to this structure. A related statute allows the City Council to dissolve the commission at will, and any property and assets automatically revert to the city. Council members could then create an advisory committee and immediately appoint all cemetery commissioners to a new body that wouldn’t bear its predecessor’s burdens.

Farris says cemeteries should be treated like all other city-owned resources, with a department like parks and recreation or public works tasked with oversight and maintenance. His common-sense request deserves immediate attention.

During Farris’ chairmanship, the commission asked the city to audit its payroll records. An audit memo from Chief Financial Officer Amy Staton produced in December recommends policies for overtime pay and accrued leave time benefits. That’s because the cemetery manager and maintenance workers are employed by the commission itself. Pay and benefits aren’t synchronized with city of Wilson rules.

Five appointed volunteers who meet once a month shouldn’t be in the business of supervising hired staff. If state or federal labor law is violated, the city of Wilson might be liable despite the commission’s relative independence.

RELATED STORY: Is running Wilson's cemeteries a task too tall for volunteers?

There’s also evidence of occupational health and safety concerns. Farris noticed a maintenance worker wasn’t wearing a hard hat last summer and emailed Adam Rech, the city’s safety and risk coordinator, who confirmed hard hats and safety vests should be worn. Yet Rech lacks the authority to ensure compliance, as he’s outside the commission’s chain of command.

Our cemetery commissioners are diligent, and it’s no insult to admit that human resources issues shouldn’t be under their purview. If Farris, an attorney with considerable legal acumen, was uncomfortable managing paid staff in his appointed role, the current five commissioners may feel similarly squeamish.

Creech and Fyle both acknowledged long-running problems with Wilson’s cemeteries, but they stopped short of heeding Farris’ call to reconstitute the commission and assign oversight to a city department. We’d hate to think the Wilson City Council intends to maintain the status quo out of misguided deference to tradition — or to preserve the panel as a scapegoat for cemetery complaints.

Back to the opening question: If an independent commission is good enough for cemeteries, why not utilities?

Perhaps because the council siphons more than a quarter-million dollars a year from electric customer late fees to pad a slush fund its members use to bankroll pet projects outside the regular budget cycle. An electric commission might have the good sense to derail that gravy train.

Running cemeteries may be less lucrative than gouging cash-strapped electric customers to generate unseemly profit for the City Council, but it’s still important work. Wilson residents, tell your council members it’s time they take responsibility for our public cemeteries and stop passing the buck to volunteers.

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