$8.89 Assessment : At Cemetery, It's Death and Taxes

Times Staff Writer

The board of the Wilmington Cemetery District voted this week to impose an annual $8.89 assessment on property owners in Wilmington to keep the 130-year-old graveyard in business.

The three-member board, which has operated the cemetery since 1958, made its decision after two hours of testimony from residents, several of whom opposed the assessment.

"Let's put it on the ballot. Let the people of Wilmington decide," Earl L. Breeland shouted at the board. "You just charged me eight something a year whether I like it or not."

Issue of Control

Many residents who supported the assessment, which was proposed by the board as a permanent solution to the graveyard's financial problems, said they favored taxing themselves as a way to keep the cemetery out of the control of the City of Los Angeles. If the cemetery district were to go out of business, the graveyard would revert to the city.

"If it goes back to the City of Los Angeles, containers will be on top of it in a year, just like everything else," said Simie Seaman, who presented the board with 160 signatures of residents in favor of the assessment. Many properties in Wilmington are used for storing shipping containers.

But others said Wilmington residents would have greater control over the actions of the city than over the district board, which is appointed by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

"It has been 30 years and I haven't seen one bit of accountability," Charles B. Stevenson said of the district board. "If the city takes it over, at least we as electors have some accountability. We can hold the city accountable for the condition of the cemetery."

The assessment assures Wilmington residents of preferential burial rights, meaning burial will be limited to district residents and their relatives. The district includes about 9,300 taxable parcels and is generally bounded by the Harbor Freeway, Lomita Boulevard, Alameda Street and B Street.

The cemetery, once the resting place of Phineas Banning, the founder of Wilmington and what is now the Port of Los Angeles, closed in June after county officials notified the board that the district had overdrawn its bank account by $21,428. The graveyard has since reopened and will operate through December on a $36,000 loan from the City of Los Angeles.

Helen Parker, deputy county counsel who is legal adviser to county cemetery districts, said the Wilmington district had been running on surplus funds it had accumulated in the the 1970s. Proposition 13, the statewide tax measure passed in 1978, changed the method of funding the district--reducing the amount of money the district received from taxes.

It took about 10 years, she said, for the reduction in revenue to catch up with the district.

"There really aren't that many choices" aside from the assessment, Parker told the crowd at the Monday night hearing.

Board President Dade Albright, who helped clean up the cemetery in 1957 when it was "nothing but a patch of weeds," said the graveyard is a source of community pride. He said the assessment district was the only way to ensure local control.

"How many things in Wilmington do we have with the name Wilmington on it?" Albright asked the crowd of 60 residents. "We have the Wilmington Cemetery."

Parker said the $8.89 assessment is large enough to cover the $100,000 annual operating budget of the cemetery and also repay the city and county over the next seven years. Under state law, however, she said the district will need to hold a hearing each year before imposing the assessment.

Albright said the board will begin holding monthly public meetings, the first set for 5:30 p.m. on Aug. 25 at 645 Avalon Blvd. At the first meeting, he said, the board will discuss expanding to five members and will explore efforts to have the cemetery designated as a historic landmark.

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