In 2017, the Tulare Public Cemetery District (TPCD) grounds were in such bad shape it launched a grassroots movement that resulted in the office staff absconding into the night and the resignation of the entire board.
Five years later, with a new board of trustees, more groundskeepers, and a new staff at more than double the pay, is the cemetery in better shape?
The answer is debatable.
Sunken graves, weeds and broken pipes
While members of Caring Cause – Support Tulare Public Cemetery District Facebook page have praised some of the positive changes at the cemetery, other problems have seemingly popped up to take their place.
During the June 23 cemetery district meeting several people spoke during public comment about weeds, broken grave markers, and standing water so deep that it covered the graves in the Northwest quadrant of the cemetery on Kern St.
The district consists of two cemeteries, Kern Street and North.
Marsha Zaragoza posted a picture on Caring Cause of a sunken grave at Kern Cemetery.
“This is my mom’s grave I just went and saw this and I’m in complete shock. My heart just dropped when I saw it.”
Gail Scaife added, “This happens all the time at the North Cemetery! I’ve been complaining about it for years! !! I don’t think they compact the dirt well enough. Can’t always blame it on a broken pipe either! It’s happened to my son’s grave twice and my nephew’s also.”
Cheryl Borba commented, “Sonora Street is horrible. Grass not mowed and weeds growing over graves.
Emily Rebelo expressed her anger, “it made me sick when I got there this afternoon. They should be ashamed the place looks horrible.”
Sandee Otto commented, “They just don’t care, so sad. Our loved ones final resting place and it looks like this.”
Gail Scaife wrote, “Did we have another pipe break at the north cemetery. Seems like this is happening all the time. Do the groundsmen not know that you have to compact the dirt over the graves after they are filled to allow for the sinking. Again there are a lot of spots that have large holes near graves….. There are so many holes, none of the headstones line up some are high, some are low, some are bigger than others. Shouldn’t there be some consistency?”
After receiving complaints about the condition of graves after two recent burials, Trustee Alberto Aguilar walked the grounds to take a look for himself. In an email to Office Manager Clara Bernardo he states,
“Clara, I also informed you and David of the neglect and deplorable condition of the cemetery grounds that I photographed and reviewed with both of you. David agreed that the grounds were very, very bad and the reason was due to not being staffed properly.”
Bernardo agrees that the cemetery has hit a couple of bad months.
In an email to the Valley Voice she stated, “Concerns of condition of grounds are valid. The grounds are not at our best nor even near our best. …… For over a month we have been about 2 down between health and light duty issues that leaves us with 6 grounds men to handle 2 cemeteries with a total for over 50 acres.”
Bernardo’s full response to the Voice‘s request for comment can be viewed by clicking here.
Founder of Caring Cause says grounds look better than in 2017
Elaine Hollingsworth, founder of Caring Cause, says the grounds look 100% better than they did in 2017.
“I mean, it was a real potter’s field,” she said. “It was bare dirt back then, at least now the weeds are green,” said Hollingsworth.
Hollingsworth said that sometimes the cemetery looks beautiful and sometimes it does not. “The main problem has been consistency,” said Hollingsworth
Hollingsworth and her aunt recently visited their family plot in Kern Cemetery and had to spend two hours weeding around the head stones.
Hollingsworth and her aunt marched into the main office to complain to Bernardo.
Hollingsworth said, “Clara was very receptive to our concerns and did her best to resolve them.”
A week after their meeting Holligworth’s aunt called her to say that the family’s graves, and all the graves in a particularly bad corner of the cemetery, “had been edged and cleaned and it looked great.”
“While the grounds do look better, sometimes they drop the ball. But Clara listens to people’s complaints,” said Holingsworth.
Does double the pay translate into double the quality in maintenance?
According to a June 2017 district payroll document, two people worked in the district office and there were six grounds keepers.
The office manager in at that time, Marilyn Correia, made $21.60 an hour. Besides all the other duties of running a cemetery she and her assistant did payroll, got monthly financial statements ready for the board meetings, and did quarterly reports with sales tax returns.
Contrast that to January of this year, the trustees voted 4-1 to pay Bernardo $48.18 an hour with Aguilar voting no.
Currently, there are three office staff, including Benardo, and nine grounds keepers. Payroll is outsourced to an accounting firm and financial statements are routinely one to two months late. There is also the added expense of having one or two lawyers from County Counsel at every district board meeting.
In 2017, the district had a county lawyer on record but it was never necessary for them to attend the meetings.
For comparison, Hanford Public Cemetery, a city with a similar population and the same number of burials, pays their office manager $28.00 an hour. Porterville pays their office manager $30.00 an hour.
Former Trustee Vicki Gilson, who spoke during public comment, inquired as to what all the extra paid staff was doing.
She said the office staff has more people and makes more money but has fewer responsibilities.
She also thinks the grounds are as bad as they were in 2017, especially taking into consideration the pay raises and additional grounds keepers.
Bernardo has been at the helm for a year trying to right the ship but says she is going to need more time considering what she inherited.
Hope springs eternal though for Bernardo who wrote,
“But the heart and determination of the crew to make this the best cemetery it can be, and that the public can be proud of, is definitely there.”