Scott Co. says it's left with no choice, will take over upkeep of cemetery

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

BENTON, Mo. -- The Scott County government doesn't want to be involved in the cemetery maintenance business, but the county has no choice.

Last week the Missouri attorney general's office sought and received a court injunction transferring record-keeping duties of the Forest Hill Memorial Gardens Cemetery in Morley, Mo. While the injunction doesn't specify a legal obligation to provide maintenance and upkeep, county commissioners say they will do so anyway.

With warm weather approaching and the plant growth that comes with it, commissioners say the county has no choice but to maintain the cemetery or let the land become an eyesore.

"The concern right now is to start taking care of it now," said Commissioner Dennis Ziegenhorn. "We have an obligation to the constituency."

Scott County's obligation to keep records for the cemetery and its self-imposed obligation to maintain the land are the result of problems that surfaced in August 2005 at a cemetery in Sikeston owned by the same company, Mike Graham and Associates LLC of Houston, Texas. The company owned two cemeteries in Sikeston -- Memorial Park Cemetery and Garden of Memories -- along with the Morley cemetery.

Complaints about unfulfilled contracts led to a lawsuit by the attorney general's office that is still pending, said spokesman John Fougere. The office also received complaints about a Rolla, Mo., cemetery where the company sold spaces in a mausoleum that had not been constructed, Fougere said.

The company has since dissolved, leaving the cemetery deeds to creditors and record-keeping duties to local governments. Fougere said the state is now working with Sikeston and Scott County to find buyers for the three abandoned cemeteries.

Several interested buyers have made contact on the local level, said Sikeston city administrator Doug Friend and Ziegenhorn, but neither can say for certain how long the local governments will have to provide upkeep.

"It looks like we're in the business whether we want to be or not for a while," Ziegenhorn said.

Sikeston is also encouraging residents to call local police with any complaints about the cemetery to see if a criminal case can be made against the owner, Friend said.

Sikeston, after consulting the attorney general's office, now has the ability to sell new plots at its two cemeteries working through local funeral home directors. Scott County does not have such a mechanism in place for the Morley cemetery, said Scott County Recorder Tom Dirnberger.

Dirnberger's office is keeping the cemetery records. If someone who purchased a plot in the Morley cemetery dies, the funeral director can consult records to find the plot location.

"I'm not in the capacity to be able to sell any plots," Dirnberger said. "No one can right now. It's going to be a problem unless we get this thing settled pretty quick."

Presiding Commissioner Jamie Burger said county jail inmates would be at the cemetery this week to clean up items left in the cemetery over the winter to prepare for summer mowing. The county has also put out a call for bids for mowing the cemetery, Burger said.

But what cost the county will have to pay for those services remains uncertain, Ziegenhorn said Monday. The Morley cemetery sits on about 16 acres, with about half of that wooded.

Sikeston could also contract out mowing at its two cemeteries, Friend said. He estimated the cost would exceed $50,000 for the entire summer, using contracts the city currently has to mow another cemetery run by the city.

The Sikeston Department of Public Safety is also taking complaints to see if a criminal case against Mike Graham and Associates can be built.

msanders@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 182

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