To the Editor:

I saw in a recent edition of the TD that the Walnut Ridge City Council will be deciding on the city’s 2021 budget during their upcoming December meeting. As distance prevents my attending this meeting in person, I would like to express my thoughts in the following letter to the people of Walnut Ridge.

As many readers may remember, the voters of College City and Walnut Ridge voted to consolidate their two cities in 2016. One of the municipal services that College City had previously provided – for several decades – was the mowing of Mt. Zion Cemetery on West Fulbright Avenue. Founded in 1875, by its 100th anniversary the cemetery had been abandoned: private citizens rallied to clear the undergrowth, and College City agreed to mow the cemetery as a public service, which it continued to do up until consolidation.

Unfortunately, after consolidation took effect in January 2017, Walnut Ridge’s upkeep of the cemetery diminished with each passing month. City employees mowed it on occasion, but mowed so infrequently that a neighbor had to personally weedeat around the headstones that summer, so as to prevent their being lost or damaged by errant blades. Since then, the city administration has gone so far as to deny municipal responsibility for the cemetery: Mayor Snapp declared in a January 8 email that “WR did not accept the responsibility of the cemetery as a City responsibility. We could not do that. That cemetery is not the only historic cemetery in town. We did say we would continue to help where we could.”

To be sure, since 2017 the city of Walnut Ridge has been a good neighbor to the cemetery, helping remove tree limbs after a severe storm and helping interested citizens get in touch with Casey’s General Store officials (the company thereafter kindly donated the former Higginbotham Funeral Home fence to the cemetery in 2018). Such exemplary acts deserve to be noted, and are genuinely appreciated! But, the city of Walnut Ridge was supposed to be more than a neighbor to Mt. Zion Cemetery – it was supposed to be a landlord. And it has been a negligent one at that.

In the long term a consolidated Walnut Ridge certainly has other matters to worry about besides cemetery upkeep – a city of 5,000 has obligations and needs that a city of 500 does not. But in the last four years, the city of Walnut Ridge has never formally deaccessioned its inherited responsibility for Mt. Zion Cemetery in a proper or responsible manner, and it should do so. Leading up to the consolidation election, to my knowledge Walnut Ridge never publicly disclosed that it would disown the cemetery upon consolidation – leading voters to assume that, like other services provided by College City, Mt. Zion Cemetery care would continue as before, or even improve thanks to the money saved elsewhere by eliminating redundant staff positions. And after consolidation, Walnut Ridge never spearheaded any effort to create a separate cemetery association for Mt. Zion that would take over that responsibility from the city.

Fortunately, after witnessing the city of Walnut Ridge’s disregard for the cemetery during the 2017 mowing season, a group of private citizens banded together to set up a separate nonprofit cemetery association out of necessity. More information about that association, the Mt. Zion Cemetery Association of WR, can be found at https://www.mtzionwr.org/. For several years now, the association has covered the expense of adequate mowing – $1,500 for 2020 – but has not had the benefit of any municipal funds or endowment in doing so. I am calling on the City of Walnut Ridge to include, in their 2021 budget, a one-time $10,000 deposit into the Mt. Zion Cemetery Association’s perpetual care fund, as a proper means of relinquishing municipal responsibility for that cemetery.

For interest to fully cover maintenance expenses, the Mt. Zion Cemetery Association’s endowment would ideally need to be closer to $50,000+, but $10,000 seems like a fair, realistic, and achievable amount for Walnut Ridge’s budget – a mere $2 per citizen. It would be a win-win for all parties involved: the association would be better able to maintain the cemetery (to Walnut Ridge’s overarching benefit) for centuries to come, the city would be able to formally absolve itself of its inherited responsibility for Mt. Zion, and WR taxpayers would save money in the long term compared to the $1,500+ a year it would cost for the city to resume mowing the cemetery itself. If $10,000 seems like too great a strain on the budget for a single year, it could be paid in increments over several years.

As stated above, Mayor Snapp previously noted that “[Mt. Zion] Cemetery is not the only historic cemetery in town.” Quite true – Walnut Ridge is lucky to have Lawrence Memorial Park, Scott Cemetery, and several other cemeteries and gravesites within its city limits. Certainly these cemeteries would appreciate donations as well; few realize the upkeep expenses that all cemeteries face, and I encourage the TD’s readers to consider donating to them! Yet, due to College City’s decades-long precedent of municipal care for Mt. Zion, since 2017 the consolidated Walnut Ridge has had a special municipal responsibility to ensure Mt. Zion’s long-term provision in particular – a critical distinction.

In full disclosure, I will note that I serve as corresponding secretary for the Mt. Zion Cemetery Association, though the thoughts expressed in this letter are solely my own. Lest anyone imagine that there is any personal financial gain to be had, I can assure them that the opposite is the case – I have personally spent several thousand dollars towards the cemetery’s restoration and upkeep the last several years, and this spring donated my stimulus check to the association to make the cemetery’s 2020 mowing possible; others have likewise made great sacrifices of time and money to ensure the cemetery’s survival. The association’s board of directors is comprised only of volunteers, who will never receive payment for their service. Walnut Ridge’s $10,000 would be strictly set aside for the cemetery’s perpetual care endowment, and like other cemetery associations Mt. Zion would still have to fundraise to cover the majority of its yearly expenses. If any official, citizen, or reader has questions, I am happy to respond, via mtzionwr.secretary@gmail.com.

Ultimately, all budgets are a matter of priorities. It is my hope that, after four years of municipal neglect, the city of Walnut Ridge will make WR’s Mt. Zion Cemetery a priority in their 2021 budget.

Edward Harthorn

Lincoln, Nebraska (College City resident 2005-2016)

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