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County Dems ask for indigent burial reform

Monroe County Democratic Legislators, from left, Willie Joe Lightfoot, Cynthia W. Kaleh and Ted O’Brien were at the Oatka Cemetery in Scottsville on Tuesday to introduce legislation to restore funding to the county’s indigent burial program. Todd Etshman

At a press conference near indigent burial sites in Oatka Cemetery in Scottsville on Tuesday, Monroe County Democratic lawmakers introduced legislation to restore funding to the county’s indigent burial program and enhance minimum funeral standards for indigent burial.

“There is a definite difference between this side of the road and that side of the road,” said Legislator Cynthia W. Kaleh, referring to the well-marked and maintained grave sites in the rest of the cemetery. “It is supposed to be peace everlasting, but I find all too often it is not when you’re dealing with indigent burials.”

Kaleh said she has heard complaints about the indigent burial program in Monroe County since she joined the legislature in 2008.

Pursuant to Kaleh’s proposed legislation, the county’s Human Services commissioner would establish guidelines for indigent burial eligibility and ensure all cemeteries that contract with the county maintain their indigent burial grounds in the same manner that they maintain the rest of the cemetery. Kaleh said all indigent decedents should receive a permanent marker made of stone, metal or a material that will endure.

Funding for the indigent burial program was cut in 2006 from $1,850 per burial to $1,250. Democratic legislators said the cut was made without notice and resulted in the cremation of many decedents whose families and faith would have preferred otherwise.

Democratic Minority Leader Ted O’Brien said when government is responsible for interment, New York public health law requires that it be done pursuant to an individual’s wishes.

Assistant Minority Leader Willie Joe Lightfoot suggested several ways the county could come up with the funding to restore the funeral cost to 2006 levels, such as eliminating non-essential cell phone use, removing the vacant assistant county executive position, reduce the use of non-essential county vehicles and reduce office supplies in county departments.

“If we can find money and grants for elephants in the zoo, if we can find money and grants for various programs for the ribbon cuttings we see this administration do, why can’t we empower our administration to restore this burial program back to where it was so we can stop this substandard way of burying our poor?” Lightfoot asked. “The poor will always be with us, so this issue isn’t going away.”

Lightfoot said the county provided assistance for 717 burials between 2007 and 2011.

Grace Miller of the House of Mercy in Rochester also spoke in support of the Democratic proposals to restore funding and provide a minimal standard of burial service.

“The poor in our community are not being treated with dignity and respect,” she said. “This is a question of justice. Our poor are being forced into cremation against their will.”

Kaleh said with indigent burials at Oatka Cemetery, individuals are not embalmed and are put in cardboard coffins.

“This is what we call the Potters Field,” Miller said. “The poor in our county are not being treated with dignity and respect.”

Although the legislators said the cemetery is nice enough, they say it is too far from the city and families are not adequately informed of indigent burial arrangements.

Justin Feasel, director of communications for the county, noted in a statement that the current subsidy for burial assistance strikes a balance between helping to pay for basic funeral expenses and  the ability of the taxpayers to cover those costs.

“While Legislature Democrats have chosen to hold a press conference in a cemetery to grandstand in front of solemn grave sites, Monroe County will continue working diligently to administer the Burial Assistance Program in a way that best protects already overburdened local property taxpayers,” the statement said.

The proposed legislation now goes to Monroe County Legislature President Jeff Adair to decide what committee will consider the proposal.