Cemetery getting back to normal, receiver says

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A semblance of normalcy is returning to Green Acres Memorial Park since the state seized its assets, its court-ordered receiver said, though the wide-ranging authority afforded its overseer has raised questions from those who install grave markers.

Three employees of the private cemetery on U.S. 80 have been rehired, including clerical and grounds staff, said Harry Sharp, tapped by the state in March as head of a receivership to get the cemetery’s finances and maintenance in order.

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* Question-and-answer session on Green Acres Memorial Park

* 6 p.m. Thursday

* Warren County Courthouse, circuit courtroom, second floor

* Planned attendees include Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, Business Regulation and Enforcement division chief Dave Scott, court-appointed receiver Harry Sharp and cemetery staff.

Mowing and work to install markers have taken special significance as well as stabilizing the cemetery’s finances. Questions on the cemetery’s status will be fielded at 6 p.m. Thursday during a town meeting-styled event in the circuit courtroom, on the second floor of the Warren County Courthouse.

“We’re trying to get it in decent shape,” Sharp said. “We’ve purchased new equipment and taken steps to secure it.”

Earlier this month, $750 in lawn equipment was reported missing from cemetery grounds, according to sheriff’s department reports.

Lot sales and burials have continued since the Secretary of State’s Office filed court papers detailing more than $370,000 in missing funds from its pre-need trust account. Though unspecified in later court filings, the amount appears to be a conservative estimate. Sharp said several forms of the cemetery’s insurance has been restored after having lapsed, including worker’s compensation.

The victims in the process are those who paid the cemetery company in advance for outer burial containers or vaults, required for all burials, and the standard stone and metal grave markers. Deeds to plots remain valid, but those who purchased other services and merchandise have, in essence, lost the money, and are having to pay again — though most vendors are advertising discounts as a courtesy due to the situation. Numbers on how many people prepaid, sometimes thousands of dollars, have not been determined.

Chosen for his experience in cemetery management in Florida, Sharp, as receiver, holds sway over the opening and closing of graves, placing of vaults and the purchase and placement of grave markers for at-need contracts. Sharp said people appear to understand the situation, terming it “unfortunate.”

Dave Pace of Brookhaven Monument Company, which owns Vicksburg Monument Company on Clay Street and similar businesses in Hazlehurst and Natchez, said his company empathizes with those having to pay twice.

The company has tried to pass on to customers some relief Pace said has come from its suppliers, but feels installation fees charged by the cemetery should be waived because of the situation.

“It might make business sense to them, but I think it’s unfair,” Pace said. “People are out several thousands of dollars.”

Pace, also this year’s president of the Dayton, Ohio-based Monument Builders of North America, said some markers inside the 15-acre cemetery are also sinking and overall upkeep is still lacking. “It’s down for the count,” Pace said.

Sharp maintains policies regarding installation fees charged to monument companies have been in place since the cemetery was established in 1955.

“There’s always been a required installation fee,” Sharp said. “All the monument companies knew that.”

The case is garnering interest outside Mississippi from cemetery restoration groups and consumer advocates such as Carolyn Jacobi.

Jacobi, who runs Maryland-based Eternal Justice Inc., said she was contacted by the Clay Street dealer’s customers who were told they could have their markers installed for free, despite the pre-need account’s depletion.

Additional expense “deprives an individual’s right to memorialized graves,” said Jacobi, who also planned to attend the meeting and talk with those who hold contracts with Green Acres.

The case was part of an industrywide sweep by Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, with violations alleged at Green Acres the most serious in terms of the total of missing money. The probe extends to the cemetery’s perpetual care fund, which state officials have testified is at least $13,000 short since September.

The office’s Business Regulation and Enforcement division oversees cemeteries’ pre-need trust accounts, which are mandated by state law to hold 85 percent of funds paid for pre-paid cemetery merchandise.

Changes will take effect July 1 to the state’s Pre-Need Act. One will direct $10 from each contract be placed in the trust to build up a fund geared to protect the consumer against future reported abuses. Another will require those who sell pre-need contracts to be licensed by the state.

Green Acres, though in court-ordered receivership, is still owned by heirs of Mike Graham, who lived in Texas. They have not made court appearances.


Contact Danny Barrett Jr. at dbarrett@vicksburgpost.com