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Cemetery officials frustrated school district won't sell land

Aug. 10, 2010

Frustrated with their attempts to work out a potential land sale with the school district, trustees with the Wauwatosa Cemetery said this week they will likely turn to the city to help address financial problems at the 144-year-old facility.

"I'm extremely disappointed by (the board's) inability to have a long-term plan to look into the future and understand that this is a community issue rather than a School Board issue," said Christine Toson Hentges of The Tribute Cos., which operates the cemetery.

Cemetery officials last month told the district that a potential buyer wants to purchase all or part of a roughly 4-acre district-owned parcel adjacent to the cemetery behind Longfellow Middle School.

Board reluctant to sell

But some board members said this week they aren't interested in giving up the property because of potential future need and the presumably low price they would receive in today's depressed real estate market.

"I have a tendency to not want to sell any land unless there's a compelling reason to," Board President Anne Fee said.

Still, Fee said, the board would likely continue its discussion on the issue.

Board member Michael Meier agreed the land shouldn't be sold, adding that he doesn't know whether the sale would make a difference in the future of the cemetery.

"This is an issue of cemetery management," he said. "I believe the failure of the cemetery is inevitable - whether we sell them land or not."

Other factors at play

Superintendent Phil Ertl, who has had several discussions with the cemetery board, said that from a financial standpoint it would not make sense for the district to sell "unless we were to get a (price) way above market value."

Still, he said board members should "take the community aspect (of the sale) into consideration."

Why? Well, the community - read, Wauwatosa taxpayers - could eventually become responsible for the continued upkeep of the site if the cemetery becomes financially insolvent, Toson Hentges said.

The cemetery lost nearly $15,000 in 2009 and will likely run out of money within two years. If that happens, cemetery board Trustee Richard Thomas said, the cemetery is required to be abandoned, meaning no maintenance can be performed on the site for five years.

At that point, the grounds would be put under city control, and Wauwatosa taxpayers would have to foot the bill for upkeep.

Thomas said the board now has to look to the city to potentially provide some "financial backing" for the cemetery.

"That's our final resort," he said.

Cementery wants 'fair shot'

Some cemetery representatives said they were frustrated that the district does not have a long-term development plan in place for the parcel that governs what should be done with the site.

"My hope is that they'll do the study and at least give us a fair shot," said the Rev. Steven Peay, a cemetery trustee.

About half of the Longfellow parcel has housed a baseball field for a number of years, but the other 2 acres of the site remain undeveloped. Tribute Cos. is interested in purchasing the site, but Toson Hentges said the company needs part or all of that land to make it financially viable.

The Wauwatosa Cemetery has about 600 full lots available, which is enough for the next 15 years or so, Toson Hentges said. However, if the cemetery acquires the Longfellow parcel, the inventory of grave sites would be set "for generations," she said.

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