WORTHINGTON - For 145 years, Worthington Cemetery has relied upon the sale of burial plots and the generosity of its association members to provide a well-groomed home for the departed to rest in peace.
Until a few years ago, the combination of burials, lot sales, donations and interest earned from the Worthington Cemetery Association’s $275,000 perpetual care fund was enough to cover expenses for the 21-acre public cemetery on Worthington’s southeast side.
That’s no longer the case.
Board member Tom Ahlberg said the cemetery’s financial woes have kept him awake at night. The association’s coffers are so depleted Ahlberg said it’s going to be tight to make payroll at the end of this month for employees, including a part-time office manager and groundskeeper.
Board members - Ahlberg, along with President Shari Nelson, Marvin “Butch” Voss, Cheryl Bonsma and Pam Rickers - have now reached out to both the city of Worthington and Nobles County seeking financial support. By state statute, if a cemetery association disbands, the city or the county in which the cemetery is located is responsible for future care and maintenance.
Ahlberg said the association doesn’t want that to happen. Neither does Nobles County, nor the city of Worthington.
What might save the association is some gap financing - contributions from the city and/or county to keep the cemetery’s fund balance in the black.
“We would like to keep (managing) it; we just can’t afford to keep operating as we are,” Ahlberg said. “We’re asking them to cover the shortfall, with a maximum per agency of $10,000. We would use our money first, but if we run into a shortfall, they would be there to back us.”Limited funds
Worthington Cemetery was established in the early 1870s, with the oldest grave marker dating to 1872. Most notably, the cemetery is the burial site for former Minnesota Gov. Stephen Miller, a Civil War veteran who died in 1881.
Over the years, contributions to the perpetual maintenance fund have grown to $275,000, but only the interest generated from the fund’s investments can be touched.
Because of investment limitations, Ahlberg said much of the money is in certificates of deposit, garnering only a .5 percent or 1 percent interest rate. The annual interest earned is far from the nearly $60,000 in annual expenses for equipment maintenance, fuel and salaries.
Meanwhile, Ahlberg said other sources of funding - income from burials and the sale of plots - has also declined.
People are living longer and choosing not to purchase their burial plot until they have to, Ahlberg said. Over the past five years, the cemetery has conducted an average of 41 burials and sold 27 lots. Last year, the cemetery had 35 burials.
In addition to fewer burials and lot sales, more people are choosing cremation. Holes dug for cremains are much smaller than those needed for caskets, which impacts pricing and revenue as well.
What has saved the cemetery in recent years is public donations. Ahlberg said letters are sent to all lot owners on an annual basis.
“We ask them to donate $10 for every lot they own,” he said. “That typically brings in $10,000 to $15,000 per year.
“We can ask for more money, which we have, but that well isn’t deep,” he added. “Without (the donations) we would have run out years ago.”Making do
Ahlberg said the association has been frugal with its revenues, but it’s been a challenge.
“I cannot remember when we’ve replaced a lawnmower,” he said. Instead, the association repairs what it has and, as the equipment ages, the fixes get more expensive.
“It’s not uncommon to spend $1,000 on a repair,” Ahlberg said. “Because of that, we get a shortfall in our budget.”
There have been no improvements to the cemetery, he noted, while crediting dedicated staff for keeping the cemetery looking nice. Howard Rachuy, Vernon Freese and Randy Herringa logged many hours maintaining the grounds before they retired, and Kevin Black will do the same.
Ahlberg said perhaps the city or the county, in addition to a financial contribution, could give the cemetery association a deal on mowing equipment retired from their use. Already, the county is donating staff time toward getting GPS coordinates of cemetery plots for entry into a database.
Anyone who would like to make a donation to the Worthington Cemetery is welcome to do so. Funds should be sent to Worthington Cemetery Association, P.O. Box 85, Worthington 56187.
“I appreciate the donations people have been giving,” Ahlberg said. “Without that, we really could not run.”
As for financial assistance from the city and the county, Ahlberg remains hopeful.
“As long as the city and the county work together, I believe that we will help them stay in business as they are - that’s my feeling,” said Nobles County Administrator Tom Johnson.
“It’s not the business of the city or the county to run a cemetery - that makes no sense for us,” he added. “I would hope all our constituents would agree with that.”