As various governmental entities consider turning more public functions over to private enterprise, the situation the City of Lawrence now faces with Memorial Park Cemetery may serve as a cautionary tale.
In an effort to ease their budget demands, it's become something of a trend for local and state governments to look at outsourcing some publicly operated services - such as utilities and prisons - to private companies. Such proposals usually are touted as a way to increase efficiency and save taxpayers money.
If all goes smoothly, a move to private operators may accomplish both those goals. But if things don't go well, it is the governing body that will be expected to make things right.
One version of that scenario is playing out between the City of Lawrence and Memorial Park Cemetery. Complaints started to surface about two years ago about the management of the privately owned cemetery. People with relatives buried there observed lax maintenance and headstones overgrown with weeds. Many people reported having to spend considerable time mowing and trimming at the graves of their loved ones. After unsuccessful attempts to resolve the problems with the cemetery owners, they took their grievances to city officials in hope they could intervene.
City officials began working on the problem. The Kansas Attorney General's Office also got involved because of allegations that the cemetery owners had mishandled a trust fund that was supposed to pay for continued maintenance of the property. Charges subsequently were filed against the cemetery owners. In May 2005, just a few days before Memorial Day, the City of Lawrence took over operation and maintenance of the cemetery.
Since that time, the city has been spending about $10,000 a month to maintain the cemetery. Although city officials had no particular desire to own and operate Memorial Park, they now are eager to complete the takeover so that the city can sell burial plots and, they hope, gain access to a $650,000 trust fund to pay for maintenance.
The city has never owned Memorial Park Cemetery, so it was not responsible for the fact that it ended up under poor management by a private company. But when Lawrence taxpayers couldn't resolve their problems with the cemetery owners, they still turned to the city for help with what they saw as a public, or at least a civic, responsibility.
The same probably would be true of any public service that is outsourced to a private concern, which is an issue worth considering for governmental officials on whose desk the buck undoubtedly would stop.