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Assembly looks for fair way to ensure perpetual care of cemeteries

A bill in the Maryland House of Delegates aims to help the state’s cemetery industry — and its customers -— by increasing the amount of money initially reserved for a perpetual care fund when a new cemetery opens and clarifying exactly how deposits to the fund are to be taken from sales proceeds.

Westminster Cemetery

The Maryland House of Delegates is considering legislation to help the state’s cemetery industry — and its customers -— by increasing the amount of money reserved for a perpetual care fund when a new cemetery opens.

In the last session, a bill passed requiring nearly all new cemeteries — except nonprofit and religious organizations — to begin perpetual care trust funds to ensure care of the land for the future.The initial deposit amounts for those funds have remained the same since 1973 — a $10,000 deposit for small operations and $25,000 for more than 10 acres of burial space.But the new bill, HB 80, in its current form would up that amount to $25,000 for cemeteries smaller than 10 acres and from $25,000 to $50,000 for larger spaces.The bill likely will be amended soon, however, to create a sliding scale to better accommodate the great variety in size of the state’s cemeteries — from tiny, one-acre Eastern Shore operations to large cemetery conglomerates with more than 100 acres.The legislation also specifies that the 10 percent of each sale go into the fund. If a customer pays $1,000 for a burial plot, the cemetery owner must place $100 of that into the perpetual care fund.Currently, cemetery owners are left to decide how to derive the 10 percent. Some add it to the purchase price, charging $1,100 for the same plot, and still others price plots for $909 and add only $91 to the fund.The state’s Office of Cemetery Oversight, led by Director Steve Sklar, wrote the bill, sponsored by Del. Michael E. Busch, D-Anne Arundel.The office’s emphasis in the bill “is on the calculation question, so everybody’s treated the same, so everybody’s getting equal value on equal funds,” Sklar said.Asked if the new provision would benefit consumers, Sklar said, “Without question. Also, [it benefits] competitors, [ensuring] that at least they’re above board and disclosing the same value for the same price.”Devin J. Doolan, a lobbyist for the state’s cemetery industry, said the industry has cooperated with Sklar’s office on the legislation.“We came to the agreement that there should be a uniform methodology of imposing the perpetual care charge,” Doolan said. “I think it’s important to the cemetery industry that the public have confidence in their conduct. That is very important in an industry so emotion-sensitive, where trust is a significant factor.”Doolan and Sklar also agree that amendments to the new minimum amount of initial deposit should be made.“With inflation, the costs of maintaining your yard and my cemetery have increased,” said Devin J. Doolan, a lobbyist for the state’s cemetery industry. “Up until last year, perpetual care was optional.”But now that it is required, the minimum amount of an initial deposit for the fund needs to be raised to instill faith in customers that their loved ones’ burial sites will be forever tended, Doolan said, keeping in mind that not every operation can afford $25,000.“We think it is too much money to expect a very small cemetery to raise,” said Doolan. In a work group yesterday in the Economic Matters Committee, legislators seemed open to the creation of a sliding scale to accommodate the financial needs of cemeteries of all sizes, Doolan said.Del. Mary Roe Walkup, R-Upper Eastern Shore, was thinking of the small, independent cemeteries in her district when she raised the concern during yesterday’s meeting.“On the Eastern Shore, especially on the Lower Shore, we don’t have huge cemeteries anywhere,” Walkup said. “I do realize it’s good to have the perpetual care fund there, but I don’t want to inhibit the ability of these small cemetery owners to be able to create their trust fund.”Walkup said she feared that there was too large of a gap between the amount for small cemeteries and the amount for larger ones. Huge conglomerates, she said, should have to pay far more than $50,000 if they’re maintaining, for example, 100 acres or more.Sklar and Doolan have agreed to work with Walkup in crafting amendments for the bill.What they don’t agree on, however, is a provision in the legislation prohibiting family members of the cemetery’s owners or the owners themselves from becoming trustees of the fund.Doolan said that while the intention is to keep trustees from feeding the money back into the cemetery or abusing the fund in other ways, it has never happened in Maryland.“I have seen situations where perpetual care funds have mysteriously been diminished,” Sklar said.The amendments to the legislation are to be drafted within the next few weeks, said Walkup, who added she would like to see the bill pass this session.“If you’re going to regulate,” she said, referring to last year’s legislation, “you better have the implementation of those regulations clearly in the law, or else it’s going to get misconstrued.”