Jerry Brown Digs Cemeteries

Gov. Jerry Brown has signed legislation shoring up the finances of the Kern River Valley Cemetery District – the fifth cemetery district the Democratic governor has aided during the past two years.

Four of the five cemetery districts have seen business drop not because of falling mortality rates but because of competition from nearby, recently opened federal Veterans Administration cemeteries.

On July 3, Brown signed SB 159 by Sen. Jean Fuller, a Bakersfield Republican, to aid the Kern River Valley Cemetery District on July 3.

Almost four years ago to the day, the Veterans Administration opened the Bakersfield National Cemetery some 40 miles from the Kern River cemetery. It has space for 200,000 veterans and their families.

During the most recent fiscal year, Bakersfield National Cemetery performed 642 burials. The year before it was 588  — more than double the 221 burials performed in the cemetery’s first year.

 “After the veterans’ cemetery opened, annual interments in the district’s cemetery decreased, creating significant fiscal challenges,” the Senate Governance and Finance Committee analysis of Fuller’s bill says succinctly.

Sen. Jean Fuller

Sen. Jean Fuller

Brown’s signature allows Kern River to bury up to 40 people each year, a maximum of 400 total, who don’t live within the cemetery district, as long as there’s plenty of space left for those who live within the district and the non-residents pay a fee to be buried there.

California’s 253 public cemetery districts are separate local governments, located mostly in rural areas or suburban areas that once were rural.

They pay for their expenses through internment fees and a piece of local property tax revenue.

Generally, only residents and taxpayers or former residents and taxpayers of the districts – and their families – are eligible for burial. 

The competition faced by Kern River and other cemetery districts comes at a time when the cemetery business is already depressed.

In part that’s because more of the deceased are being cremated, a cheaper option requiring, at most, shelf space in a columbarium.

Last July, Brown signed legislation aiding three other cemetery districts — two in Shasta County and one in Solano. All face the same competition from federal veterans cemeteries.

Unknown-4The Democratic governor also signed legislation allowing the Davis Cemetery District to bury up to 500 persons who aren’t residents of the district at its 820 Pole Line Road cemetery.

In that case, the bill’s author  — Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada, a Davis Democrat — said the change in law was needed because the Jewish section of the cemetery was nearly full.

To ensure enough places of repose, Yolo County’s only synagogue bought a second round of plots but needed a special exemption or else some members of the congregation who don’t live in the cemetery district couldn’t be buried there.

Like Kern River, business at the Shasta cemetery districts fell after the opening of the Northern California Veterans Cemetery in 2005.

Similarly, the Silveyville Cemetery District in Solano County, which operates the Dixon, Binghamton and Tremont cemeteries, has been forced to dig up new business because the federal government opened the Sacramento Valley National Cemetery in 2006, less than 15 miles from all three of the district’s cemeteries.

The cemetery and mortuary association complained Fuller’s bill disadvantages its members by creating “an opportunity and incentive for municipalities to engage in business practices that compete with the private sector.”

They raised similar objections to the other bills signed by Brown.

In 2010, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill by Assemblyman Kevin Jefferies, a Riverside Republican, which created a comparable exemption for the Elsinore Valley Cemetery District.

The Senate Governance and Finance Committee analysis of Fuller’s bill notes that lawmakers could avoid passing individual exemptions for cemeteries by allowing all cemeteries within 50 miles of a veteran’s cemetery to accept nonresidents.

Or, the analysis says, the Legislature could “reconsider the statutory prohibition against public cemeteries’ interring nonresidents.”

So far, the advice has been ignored.




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