Thursday, September 10, 2009
Group wants better cemetery upkeep
By SUE WATSON
A group of 16 interested citizens asked Holly Springs’ mayor for better maintenance at the city’s historic cemetery - Hill Crest.
Spokeswoman Lois Swaney Shipp, a local historian, made a pitch for better upkeep, following some concerns in July and early August when the buildings and grounds workers got behind on grass clipping at the cemetery and elsewhere due to heavy July rains.
“I want to tell you our cemetery is on the National Registry of Historic Places and one of a kind,” Shipp began. “We are always proud of it.”
The cemetery is made more special because of the “sculpture” gardens with some of the stones signed by their creator, she said.
The citizens said past administrations had kept the grounds beautifully and it has been a tourist attraction as well as a delightful place to walk. It was also the setting for a movie made in the city, she said.
The bottom line is that those interested in the cemetery “want the cemetery kept up,” Shipp said. “That’s our history lying in the cemetery.”
Approximately one-fourth of the individuals buried in the cemetery were of African American heritage, she said. And Hill Crest is the final resting place of seven Confederate generals, the Yellow Fever victims, the family of Ida B. Wells Barnett, known internationally for her work with human rights, and U.S. Senator Hiram Revils, the first black Mississippian to serve in the Senate.
“We would like the cemetery pristine like a park,” Shipp said. “That’s what we’re asking; that you take care of our cemetery. It’s for all the community.”
Shipp pointed out that the gates need to be repaired and kept locked at night to “keep the ghouls and vandals out.”
Mayor Andre’ DeBerry said he agrees the cemetery should be locked at night.
“I agree with you the cemetery is historic and a reverent place and it should be,” he said.
He said the repair of the gate would take longer because the cemetery is historic and the Mississippi Department of Archives and History has oversight.
He said no one could argue that the cemetery is not kept up because blacks are not buried there, but said a prominent Mississippi representative had made him the brunt of a joke that a black mayor was asking the Legislature for funding for a historic cemetery for whites.
Many citizens have wanted to know why the nearly half-million dollar grant award from the Department of Archives and History has not been applied to improvements, the mayor said. He added that the prior board said they had a problem with desiring to know the scope of the work.
He insinuated that was one cause of delay of the work but added that the grant money is already in the city's account waiting the completion of the specifications for the restoration work to be completed by IMS Consultants who are contractors and approved by Archives and History.
“Archives and History must draw up the specifications and we have to get quotes for the gates (to be approved by the state agency),” he said. “We can’t do certain things without their approval.”
DeBerry said some of the public’s concerns regarding the buildings and grounds work have been addressed and some remain to be addressed.
He said under the late Mayor Smith, the cemetery department had cut the cemetery and the city’s rights-of-way.
“So we have gone from only the cemetery department to cutting baseball fields and rights-of-way,” he said.
He added that the cemetery has so many cut stones that each plot has to be cleaned with a weed eater and most of the areas cannot be worked with just a zero-turn lawn mower. The cemetery crew has been pulled off rights-of-way lately to shape up the grounds, he said.
“This needs full-time care and the street department needs full-time care,” said Shipp.
DeBerry said the city is trying to make adjustments by shifting workers to areas that need attention.
“I know it’s hard to run a city, but that needs to be an ongoing process all week,” she said.
“Keep in mind that sounds good but there are 8,000 other citizens (in the city who have things they want),” said the mayor.
“We’ve always had money,” Shipp said. “Mayor, we need someone to take care of the cemetery.”
“We do not have the where-with-all to do that,” DeBerry said. “I care about the cemetery.”
“I thank all of you,” Shipp said.
Frances Gatewood asked if the city has to get permission to repair the gate.
“Yes, because it’s designated as a historical cemetery,” DeBerry said.
J.R. Dunworth asked what happened to all the employees who worked in the street department who had been helping with the mowing.
DeBerry said the number of employees had decreased by attrition and the positions not refilled.
Wayne Sorrell asked if Archives and History develops the scope of the cemetery repair or the city.
James R. “Bud” Holbrook, who once kept the building and grounds for the city, told DeBerry he had the whole thing (both city and cemetery).
DeBerry said the city has grown and workers have a much larger area to keep up.
“It needs to be a tourist draw again,” Shipp said.
“I do not take lightly your concerns and I assure you tourism is a concern to me,” the mayor said. “It’s our number one industry, and while an important piece of what we do, it is only a part of a whole.”
Later in the meeting, Larry Miller reported to the board of aldermen. He said all stolen equipment at the cemetery had been replaced and workers had pulled extra duty to catch up and make the cemetery “as good as we can make it.”
He said he has had many applications for positions advertised for his department and it is taking longer to go through them. The ditches on West Boundary have been worked on.
“We are pretty much trying to play catch-up,” he said.
DeBerry said the city “can limp through now” and he wants to wait until the first of October to fill the vacancies. The ball field mowing will be turned back over to the recreation department for the rest of the season, he said.
Alderman-at-large Johnnie Bagley said Miller had been asked to bring prospective employees before the board and if the problem had been manpower, the grass problem could have been eliminated.
DeBerry said manpower “is not the only problem.”
He thinks work distribution and reassignment of duties is more important than adding new hires right now.
“So, the issue is budget?” asked alderman Russell Johnson.
“I think so,” DeBerry said. “But not all we budgeted for was done.”
“Are we in a budget crisis?” Johnson asked.
“No, we are having to manage the budget,” said DeBerry.
“If we are freezing hiring...” said Johnson.
“We are freezing large spending until next budget year,” said city clerk Belinda McDonald.
DeBerry said he hasn’t had to cut his lawn much recently, that the grass is not growing as fast.
“Our situation was so bad...” said Johnson.
“We are looking at trying to go from this point and people are trying to say the cemetery is the main focus,” DeBerry said. “The cemetery is the most labor intensive and time constraining. So we let parks be cut by the recreation department - Boundary Park and Maury Park. I’m trying to reassign manpower and get the job done.”
Johnson was still not satisfied.
“We moved two people in recreation to building and grounds and now you ask one person in recreation to do the work of three people in the parks,” he said.
DeBerry said it is just a short-term solution.
“Right now we are not playing baseball and Boundary and Maury Park and the football field are main concerns,” he said.
Johnson complained that the softball field was not ready for the schools to practice on and he is concerned about having lost personnel who have not been replaced and now manpower is being shifted.
“We all catch the flack,” he said.
“We get the heat,” said Bagley.
“That goes with the territory,” said DeBerry. “It’s the nature of the business. You have to do what you think is best and if it doesn’t work, you reshuffle (the plans).”
Bagley said she hears complaints about workers not doing their jobs.
DeBerry said he blasts people every week about work ethic and while some criticism is deserved that the complaints are not the only ones.
“We have to decide top priority every day,” he said. “At the end of the day, people are trying to do the best they can to get the job done. I think we are making progress.”
Alderman Harvey Payne asked Miller if the employees are giving maximum performance.
“They are getting settled and performance is picking up,” Miller said.
Workers get a 15-minute break in morning and afternoon and extra time for water when it’s hot, he said. “I am there all the time and they are having to get used to supervision.”
He said artificial flowers need to be put on the monuments like in most cemeteries - that moving them to mow and weed-eat is slowing down progress.
DeBerry cited a letter to the editor in the newspaper that said the city may not be charging enough for plots ($250) and opening and closing graves ($200). He said people pay $450 and “expect that grave to be maintained forever.”
He added that auditors had questioned why the city spent so much money on the cemetery and perceived it as a deficiency in city management.
He said each side of town has a beef depending on which side of town he is in on a given day.
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