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Athabasca County looking for consistency in community cemeteries

Current mowing program providing ‘fantastic’ level of service, but there’s work left to do
Athabasca County has found itself in charge of mowing 25 cemeteries in the county, including the Jordan W. Murphy cemetery, over the past few decades. During a recent committee of the whole meeting councillors discussed ways to standardize the service and remove potential liabilities from the process.

ATHABASCA - A small community cemetery can be a marker for travellers and residents alike — a well-maintained plot can entice visitors to stop in and see the area’s history, while crooked headstones and tall grass can make it seem like there’s something to hide.

Athabasca County maintains 33 cemeteries in the region — some, like Colinton or Boyle, are owned by the county, while others, like Donatville and Wandering River, are owned by community groups and mowed by the county.

“The level of service provided by this county is fantastic,” said chief administrative officer Bob Beck, who referenced his previous experience with municipalities for context. “This is the first place I’ve been where we do all the mowing for halls and cemeteries.”

Councillors were discussing cemetery maintenance thanks to an administrative request during the March committee of the whole meeting, which was dubbed “Infrastructure Services Day.”

Over the years, Athabasca County has taken over maintenance for more and more cemeteries, without an over-arching policy or plan in place. Some cemeteries have signed agreements that Whaley and her team were able to find, while others haven’t, leaving liability questions in the air.

“We got into this predicament because people would write a letter asking to do their cemetery, and (the county) would go to the council or public works who would say ‘Oh yeah of course,’” said Coun. Rob Minns, who used to work for the Public Works department. “Thank you for bringing this forward, because this discussion should have happened a long, long time ago and it never did.”

Councillors discussed two main options: hiring the extra staff and purchasing a mower or funding the program through a grant, which is common in other municipalities.

“Personally, I think the cost of mowing them is something I’m okay with as long as we have agreements in place,” said Coun. Ashtin Anderson. “As I’ve stated the entire time, I’m not comfortable with cutting grass or doing snow removal without agreements in place and knowledge of where things are within each cemetery.”

Other councillors, including Reeve Brian Hall and Coun. Tracy Holland, questioned why the county paid for the maintenance, but didn’t handle any other aspect of the process.

“If we have 20 groups that are selling plots, some may or may not be keeping records, why would we let someone else sell the land while we do the work?” asked Hall.

As it turns out, the answer was simple — cemeteries are a difficult entity to manage, according to Beck.

“It can become an administrative nightmare,” said Beck. “To take on a dozen, or more than a dozen, I think we’re better off just mowing. Having taken over one cemetery in the past, it was not pretty.”

Ultimately, councillors were unable to come to a consensus, and will be returning to the discussion at the April committee of the whole meeting. However, as Coun. Joe Gerlach pointed out, the level of service provided by the county was as good as it was going to get.

“A three-week rotation is a really high level of service and I think that’s more than adequate. I like to see us improving level of service where we can, but I think this is a high level of service as is,” he said.

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