The Missoula City Council opted to take more time to consider whether the city cemetery should be allowed to sell its own monuments after hearing complaints from residents that it puts the city in direct competition with private businesses.
At the end of the public hearing Monday night, Councilwoman Marilyn Marler said she wasn’t clear what exactly the cemetery was intending to start selling.
Marler said it was her understanding the cemetery would buy uncut monument stones and engrave them on site. Cemetery director Ron Regan told her they would just be making designs, then sending them to a set of out-of-state companies to do the engraving and send the finished products back.
That didn’t seem to sit well with Marler or Councilwoman Julie Armstrong, who moved to send the proposed changes back to the Parks and Conservation Committee, where they will be heard again on Aug. 30.
“I’m going to need some more understanding of the whole process,” Marler said.
Despite offering a product for sale to the public, representatives from the cemetery were adamant the proposed changes did not put them in competition with local businesses.
“We are not opening a monument business of any kind,” said cemetery sexton Mary Ellen Stubb in her introduction to the council, before moving to a presentation slide about the cemetery selling monuments to the public. “This is totally optional; they can purchase anywhere they want.”
Besides members of the cemetery’s board, nobody spoke in favor of the changes at Monday’s hearing, with a variety of voices urging the city not to make the changes.
Last summer, the city council had approved the purchase of monument plotting equipment and paid for staff to attend a training to learn how to use the machines. Cemetery board chair Kim Seeberger said Monday that in that request was language saying it could be used for a revenue stream later on.
Stubb said the cemetery also wants to provide monument cleaning services. She said both selling monuments and the ability to sell cleaning services are both in response to frequent requests from members of the public.
The third key element of the cemetery changes proposed to the City Council is to make the city the only entity allowed to place monuments at the cemetery. Stubbs said this was necessary for quality control purposes, as well as issues of layout to maximize the capacity at the cemetery.
Cemetery staff, as well as members of its board of directors, said there have been issues in recent years with monuments being mounted incorrectly or gravestones left damaged.
Board member Mary Lou Cordis said they’ve tried working with the local companies to resolve the issues, but "they don’t want to follow the rules for monuments” and that the cemetery gets blamed for the errors.
Rick Evans, who owns a pair of monument companies in Missoula, said his employees are quick to act when the cemetery brings an issue to their attention.
“My team goes out immediately and corrects the problem,” he said.
The Missoula Area Chamber of Commerce submitted a letter earlier this summer objecting to the city getting involved in the business of selling monuments and competing with private businesses, and the chamber’s government affairs director, Clint Burson, spoke at Monday’s hearing.
“They can call it whatever they want, it’s still offering a product for sale. That makes it a business in Missoula,” Burson said.
Rachel Parkin, an attorney hired by local monument companies, said the proposed changes are likely to have a “catastrophic impact” on local businesses and that the city shouldn’t be “using tax-exempt status to force businesses out.”
“I don’t think writing ordinances based on personality conflicts is a good way to govern,” she said.