Cemetery upkeep hits a raw nerve in Hendry

HENDRY COUNTY — An apology from Hendry County Administrator Charles Chapman for Ridgelawn Cemetery’s shabby appearance on Memorial Day sparked a lively discussion of all the county cemeteries’ maintenance at the June 12 County Board meeting.

Before commissioners began dealing with routine business, Mr. Chapman owned up for “the failure of keeping up Ridgelawn Cemetery for Memorial Day weekend. It was not done according to what we had planned. I take full responsibility for that.”

He went on to say: “We have addressed the issues internally with staff as well as … our scheduling. We believe that we have solved at least 85 percent of the problem, but we are looking for some additional solutions in terms of landscaping options, different ways to keep Ridgelawn in better condition. But I want to make a public apology to this board as well as our residents.”

Commissioner Michael Swindle said, “We know that that’s … an open nerve that our community has all year long, especially on that weekend,” and he wanted to know if county staff was leaning toward any specific ideas on upkeep.

“We’re … developing what is going to be the most attractive but yet maintenance-friendly,” answered Mr. Chapman. “We’re looking for some guidance. I believe we have reached out to some of the garden clubs in the area to get ideas, but ultimately we will be bringing a landscaping plan back to the board.”

Mr. Swindle said he knows horticulture is labor-intensive, “and we just don’t have the people to do that, and so I would encourage it to be something low-maintenance, no-maintenance like a fence, or a complete partnership, but even those are iffy.”

Mr. Chapman said that he and other county officials and staff “have begun to realize that, when you need a more intensive cleaning, we really do need to leverage our community a little bit better. There’s an everyday maintenance that we need to own and keep it up, but as for coming major events like Memorial Day, Veterans Day, etc., it may be that we’re looking at partnering with some of our members of our community … and do a more intensive volunteer service along with county staff to get the cemeteries up to top-notch for those particular special events.”

County Board Chairman Mitchell Wills lauded Commissioner Swindle’s points, saying “decorative fence would be a lot less maintenance” and noting that many state facilities have such fences as wrought-iron, concrete block and brick. “The fence we have now looks nice, but I would suggest looking at a different means … the actual mortar and brick itself is tough to keep clean.”

Commissioner Karson Turner asked about the timeline, and staff said they’re working on a plan. He said: “It’s really sensitive to people, and they want to see action. Obviously, we dropped the ball and I appreciate you (Mr. Chapman) owning that. I’m looking forward to hearing some public responses back to what they want to see out there.”

Commissioner Emma Byrd noted that “I believe we have not because we ask not, so I think by putting it a little bit back on the public … they will assist us in keeping it clean.”

Chairman Wills noted that families who have plots in which deceased relatives are buried are responsible to keep them cleaned up to an extent because “we are no longer allowed to go inside that lot. It becomes a family responsibility, and the problem is, you have families that there’s no one left to take care of it. When they’re unsightly or eyesores, we mark them.”

Commissioner Turner said he thought “this was an awesome opportunity because a ton of people rallied, went out there and made it (cleanup) happen. I think that’s another one of those service-based projects where we can see our community rally around something.”

Mr. Wills noted that school groups, including the National Honor Society, used to do such things as projects. “Those kids would come out, we’d provide all the materials they needed — all the tools, gloves, whatever the case may be — they would … pull weeds, clean, scrub headstones that hadn’t been scrubbed in years. I know they haven’t done it in quite a few years, but that was a program … that gives them the community service points they need.
“The rest of our cemeteries don’t get the activity that one does, but all the cemeteries, we need a lot of work in all of them,” he finished.

“I completely agree,” said Commissioner Turner. “We need to address Fort Denaud and both, even the old and the new cemetery in Harlem. And I would also love to know what your thought process is (on) how the expansion is going to go. You brought that up last time, Commissioner Wills. We’re running out of room, and we need to look at it. It needs to be a wholesale review.”

To Commissioner Darrell Harris’s question, “Is somebody working on that?” County Administrator Chapman replied: “Yes, sir, they’re working in conjunction with the engineer’s office, and we’ll be bringing a plan back to you as soon as we get some plans put in action and how we’re going to pay for it. Probably phases. It’s very expensive.

“So we’re going to be dusting off that plan for the benefit of all the commissioners, and we’ll be discussing this through the budget process … because this needs to be a budget item,” he finished.

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