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A Grave Situation : Financial Crisis Threatens to Doom Simi Valley’s Historic Public Cemetery

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ravaged by the 1994 Northridge earthquake and set upon by throngs of homeless people, the Simi Valley Public Cemetery has seen its share of problems.

It has been a recurring target for tombstone-tipping vandals and even sank a few years ago after heavy rains turned the grounds into a spongy bog.

But it wasn’t until state legislators voted to lop off a sizable portion of the fund supporting public burial grounds that the Simi Valley site began teetering on the brink of financial collapse.

“To say that we’re keeping expenditures to a minimum would be an understatement,” said John Williamson, director of El Rancho Simi Cemetery District, which oversees the site. “Right now there’s enough to keep it open for the next few months, but after that, who knows?”

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Although it remains unclear what will happen to the 7 1/2-acre burial ground, there is little doubt the current financial crisis could leave those who currently maintain the property with nothing to do except lock the gates.

The cemetery would then be turned over to either the city or Ventura County and maintained as a memorial park for the families who have relatives buried there. No other burials would be permitted.

That would leave the city with only one other cemetery, Assumption--a private Catholic burial ground on Fitzgerald Road--and would leave lower-income residents without an affordable spot to bury their loved ones.

Consecrated in 1892, the nondenominational public cemetery is hemmed in by a strip mall, a community park, a cluster of homes and the Arroyo Simi.

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It’s an easy landmark to pass, despite its distinction as the city’s only public cemetery and its oldest burial ground. A portion of the site, called El Rancho Simi Pioneer Cemetery, is recognized as a state historical point of interest--many of the area’s founding family members are buried there.

But since state cuts in 1993, there has been a daily struggle to keep money in the bank.

“We are at the bare minimum,” said cemetery manager Louise Cossman, who, along with her husband, Tim, live at the property, manage the cemetery, maintain the grounds and dig the graves. “Right now we’re getting by, but it takes a lot of work.”

Although the Simi Valley Public Cemetery is not in complete disrepair, there are telltale signs that money is very tight.

The lawn is a patchwork of brittle brown grass and spinach-green clover littered with rotting yellow leaves. Many of the brilliant bird of paradise bushes that line the gravel walkways have withered to gray husks, and sharp-leafed weeds have besieged headstones, a number of which have cracked in half from invading tree roots.

But considering the scant funds allotted for cemetery upkeep and its weighty expense, it’s perhaps surprising that anything is maintained.

The cemetery is funded in a variety of ways, including sale of burial plots, interment services, headstone placement and a portion of tax money collected by the county.

During the fiscal year that ended June 30, the cemetery collected just $33,142 from plot sales and services and another $23,038 from the county. Other services netted an additional $3,900.

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In that same year, meanwhile, expenses topped $83,000, forcing the cemetery district to dip into savings to cover the nearly $23,000 shortfall. That left only about $1,000 in the bank.

“That was frightening,” said cemetery district member Vince Noelle, who draws up the cemetery’s annual budget. “We were in that rock-and-a-hard-place kind of situation before this, and now it’s just become even more precarious.”

The county has since given the district about $11,000 to help fund the cemetery in the short term, but Noelle conceded that will do little to shield the cemetery from a similar fiscal scenario.

In an effort to make ends meet, the cemetery district has had to resort to drastic measures.

In 1994 the district, which is staffed by a handful of volunteers, streamlined operations. It opted out of a costly, longtime contract with a local landscaper and handed maintenance duties and grave-digging responsibilities to Tim Cossman, who is paid a little more than $16,000 a year.

The district began leasing equipment such as backhoes to trim capital expenses and modified the computer-operated sprinkler system to run at peak efficiency to cut water bills.

Pest control has been scaled back to target burrowing animals such as gophers, and cemetery officials are currently trying to work out a deal with the city parks district to help offset the $350-a-month trash bill.

“We’re always looking for ways to save money, but I don’t think it will ever get us to a point where we can maintain the property as we have in the past with the amount of money we have to work with,” Williamson said. “At some point this won’t work anymore.”

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The cemetery problems, however, haven’t gone unnoticed. Two years ago the Simi Valley City Council created a special ad hoc committee composed of council members, city officials and district members to examine the problem and find a solution that could save it from insolvency.

But it has had little success.

Early attempts at cooperating with the park district and the Local Area Formation Commission to offset costs fell through, and petitions to the state and county for additional funds have largely gone unheeded.

“We’ve had a series of meetings, but they haven’t led to much,” said Simi Valley deputy city manager and committee member Brian Gabler. “Right now there just aren’t many options.”

Which is unfortunate for those who lack the $5,000 to $10,000 to pay for burial at a private cemetery and for those who believe the cemetery’s place in the community’s history alone warrants more funding.

“It would be a shame if it closed. . . . Its age alone and the fact that it contains so many pioneer families makes it valuable,” said Pat Havens, director of the Simi Valley Historical Society and Museum. “Almost everyone who visits it can get a better appreciation of our history, because it shows these people really lived.”

El Rancho Simi Pioneer Cemetery, the small area on the grounds that contains the remains of pioneer families including the Appletons and Saviers, was designated a state historical point of interest in 1990. That recognition, however, does not come with funding to maintain the site.

Noelle said he and the district board remain optimistic that they can keep the cemetery open, admitting it will take a great deal of work.

He said the county may owe the district additional funds through revised property tax assessments. Other board members hope California’s economic rebirth and a current surplus in state coffers could mean more money funneled to the counties and special districts.

But until then, Noelle said the cemetery will continue operating as it has for the past five years, on a day-to-day, dollar-to-dollar basis, with hopes that someone will throw the cemetery a financial buoy.

“Someone has to take responsibility for the cemetery to keep it afloat,” Noelle said. “If that doesn’t happen, then we’re going to get to a point where we have 39 cents in the bank account and we’ll have to find out who to give the keys to.”


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