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All eyes were on Dade Albright the...

All eyes were on Dade Albright the other night. Not that many eyes, really. Only a dozen or so. But the number didn’t matter as much as the attention Albright commanded from the Wilmington residents who came to his business, Central Body Works on Avalon Boulevard, to grouse about a favorite topic:

Cemetery fees.

It seems that ever since 1958, the folks who own property in Wilmington have had to pony up for the cost of maintaining Wilmington Cemetery, a city landmark founded 133 years ago by Wilmington’s founder, Phineas Banning, who is buried there.

Before 1958, the 10-acre cemetery was privately owned. But after years of neglect, it became an eyesore. The grass was never cut. The weeds were everywhere. Why, people thought at the time, if Phineas Banning knew what had become of the cemetery, well. . . .

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In 1958, Wilmington voters decided to form an assessment district to maintain the cemetery so that Wilmington residents could continue to be buried there. And that was what brought a handful of residents out to Albright’s body shop Tuesday night.

As head of the three-member cemetery board, Albright had to announce this year’s cemetery fee. And after factoring in the bill for a new irrigation system, the higher cost of water and a few other items, the cemetery board had placed this year’s fee at $11.30 a parcel.

Now that might not seem like much, spread out over a year. But it is 43.4% higher than last year’s assessment of $7.88. And as Albright acknowledged, there are a few folks in Wilmington living on fixed incomes.

“Eleven dollars and 30 cents may not be much to some people. But for some people, it is,” he said.

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“Especially,” Gertrude Schwab chimed in, “when we have to pick up the Harbor Department’s share.”

“Yeah,” Albright agreed. “That’s kind of a rub.”

The Harbor Department doesn’t pay for the cemetery’s upkeep even though it is one of Wilmington’s largest landholders. At last count, the department owns 398 parcels of land in the community. And as it continues to buy land, more and more property is coming off the cemetery tax rolls.

The problem is that the Harbor Department, as a government agency, is prohibited by state law from paying a tax to another government agency. Even a small tax.

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If that weren’t the case and the Harbor Department were paying the tax, the owners of the 9,255 other parcels in Wilmington wouldn’t be paying $11.30 this coming year for the cemetery. The amount would be closer to $10.60, give or take a few cents.

But it isn’t so much the amount as the principle of the thing, Schwab and a few Wilmington residents have been saying. After all, they say, the port would be nothing without the residents of Wilmington, who have been its longshoremen, its seamen and its cannery workers.

“With all the money the Harbor Department has, it should be paying too,” says Schwab.

“If state law said we had to pay, we’d pay,” insists Dennis McCarbery, a spokesman for the port. “But the law says we can’t pay the assessment.”

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Likewise, the department can’t just dip into its sizable treasury to cover the $4,200 or so that it would pay for the cemetery if it were taxed. “There has to be some tie to the port, something related to its uses, for us to allocate money,” McCarbery said.

So, as in every year since 1958, the Harbor Department won’t be paying to maintain the cemetery, even as the port continues to buy property in Wilmington at the rate of about 20-25 parcels a year.

That’s just the way it is, the way it always has been.

“I’ve never said it was fair,” says Dade Albright.

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