Township taking on cemetery work

T-L Photo/ ROBERT A. DEFRANK Richland Township is now maintaining the Belmont Memorial Cemetery. One of the caretakers has been convicted of theft-related offenses and the other is on trial.

By ROBERT A. DEFRANK

Times Leader Staff Writer

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — Richland Township is struggling with the added expense of a cemetery and working to get the papers in order.

Since last year, Richland Township has managed the Belmont Memorial Cemetery after the caretakers, Karen Sue Ellen Neff and Keith Dwayne Baratie Sr., were accused of theft-related offenses. Neff has recently been found guilty and sentenced to 4.5 years in prison and restitution of $282,240 to the cemetery after wrongfully selling the oil and gas rights for the cemetery grounds in 2013.

Baratie’s trial began this week.

Richland Township Trustee Kathy Kaluger said the township was required to take control of the cemetery by the Ohio Revised Code, sections 517.01 to 517.31. She added that this is the only cemetery the township maintains.

“According to the Ohio Revised Code, we have to take it,” she said. “There are some townships that already have three or four (cemeteries).”

Kaluger said the township took over management in March or April, but the majority of the maintenance consists of cutting the grass. She said the task is complicated by a lack of information.

“It was thrown at us. We have it. We’re cutting it, but we don’t know anything about it,” she said.

“Right now, nothing has been given to us. We have no idea where the plots are. We have no maps. We have no information about where people are already buried and what plots have already been bought,” she said. “It’s my understanding that they have that at (Bauknecht-Altmeyer) Funeral Home.”

“We really don’t know what we’re going to do when it comes to selling them, because we don’t have a person…somebody to go and buy lots,” she said. “It’s something we’ve got to figure out.”

Kaluger said she and her fellow trustees recently attended a township trustees conference in Columbus that touched on cemetery responsibilities. Kaluger said their first priority is obtaining a deed to the cemetery.

“We were told that we didn’t need a deed. That it was ours, which didn’t set right with me because the reason these people got in trouble is because they took money from the gas and oil, and they had no right to it. They were just employees there, they weren’t the cemetery. So if there is more gas and oil, they’re not going to be fooled twice. They’re going to want to know who owns it, and I really feel that we need a deed so that we are the proper owners of that cemetery. Not that I’m saying we want it, because we don’t because it’s a lot of work for our guys,” she said.

“We are after a deed. If we have to keep cutting that cemetery and taking care of it, we want ownership,” Kaluger said.

Cindi Henry fiscal officer of the township, related the costs.

“I would say we spent well over $15,000, probably closer to $20,000 in maintaining that cemetery this summer, and that’s not including any equipment purchases. That’s just salaries and man-hours and fuel,” Henry said, adding that the equipment Baratie and Neff used has been confiscated as evidence and not yet released to the township.

She said cemetery maintenance is a common problem among townships.

“So many townships are inheriting old church cemeteries and whatnot, and they don’t have the financial means to take care of them, so it’s not just something that has hit only us. It’s impacting every township in the State of Ohio,” Henry said. “It’s becoming a real issue.”

In addition, she said the cemetery account is currently under the control of the Ohio Department of Commerce.

“They’re the ones who started getting complaints from people who had loved ones buried there. They started the investigation and learned that the board that was established back in the day had all died off and there was no one running the cemetery,” Henry said. “The man and woman that got indicted, he was the one who was mowing and maintaining that cemetery for that board, and he just took over, him and his wife, running it.”

“(The account) went to the State of Ohio. This is what convicted (Neff), but we’ve not seen it so we don’t know,” Kaluger said.

They doubt that restitution will be possible.

“We’ll never see it,” Kaluger said. “We don’t anticipate ever getting that money back.”

Kaluger said a few people have approached the trustees about the possibility of securing plots.

“Mostly people are happy now just because we’re cutting it,” she said, adding that the township was unable to do much more, such as picking up the grass.

The 44-acre cemetery is at 52950 High Ridge Road, St. Clairsville, near the intersection of Interstate 70.

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