Buried under the weight of seven cemeteries, Newton Township has been straining to afford their maintenance.
The recent half-mill cemetery levy which failed on the November ballot was the township's last-ditch effort to remove themselves from a year of being placed in fiscal caution by the auditor of state.
In 2012, the cemeteries cost about $46,000 to maintain. The fund which has been highly supplemented by the general fund hasn't been in the black since at least 2010.
Tribune Chronicle photos / Margaret Thompson
A family tombstone stands in the Wilderson Cemetery on Selkirk Bush Road in Newton Township. The cemetery is one of seven maintained by the township that is causing financial hardship for the area’s decreasing budget.
According to Fiscal Officer Susan Montgomery, the fund's deficit was at $78,000 at the start of this year, but has worked its way to a $63,500 as of Nov. 15, in part due to increases in burial fees and unanticipated inheritance tax receipts.
"The challenge lies in the responsibility of long term planning for the maintenance of seven cemeteries, continued replacement of equipment, rising costs and funding for future cemetery improvements while staying within annual revenues and not depleting resources that are needed for other township services and emergency reserves," she said.
In explaining their struggle to stay afloat, township officials often reference their exorbitant number of cemeteries. In the township's care are Duck Creek, Lutheran, Pricetown, Newton Falls East, Newton Falls West, St. Michael's and Wilderson Cemeteries.
"Mowing and Weedwacking - all that takes money to upkeep," Cemetery Sexton Mike Hall said. "They're not all real close."
Driving from the Newton Falls East and West Cemeteries, which lie in the village on either side of the Mahoning River branch, to Duck Creek Cemetery, which lies in the far southeast corner of the township, is about a 13-minute journey.
For Hall and the two other employees of the township's road department, the rounds of cutting grass at the cemeteries can back up quickly; by the time all seven are cared for, the first needs cut again.
Typically in the summer, he said they try to hire on part-time help, but with funds low and money needed for repairing mowers, this seems a luxury. Taking care of the cemeteries he said can impact the time and money they have for fixing roads and other township infrastructure.
"By law, we only have to mow them twice a year, which will really upset some people, they get mad even if we miss a week," Hall said.
The Ohio Revised code which sets the laws on cemetery maintenance is part of the reason why the township has seven cemeteries.
"There's a law on the books that anytime any cemetery is abandoned, the township has to take care of that cemetery," Trustee Greg Dubos said.
Dubos said he doesn't know of any other local townships caring for so many - it's a collection 200 years in the making.
The township's first controlled cemetery, Newton Falls East, was donated to the trustees in 1817. By 1940, through a series of churches abandoning cemeteries, more land donations, and one purchase, the township was in control of six cemeteries.
In 2006, the township took on the St. Michael's Cemetery when the church could no longer afford its maintenance.
This rich history is something that the Newton Cemetery Association doesn't want to see covered up with long grasses in the summer months.
"I think it's the history of the community you are preserving. It's an obligation Newton Township has to its citizens to maintain the dignity of their past residents as well as veterans," said Lois Wynkoop, president of the association.
She and a handful of elderly volunteers working on a "shoestring" budget have been compiling a database of the graves sites in all seven cemeteries.
"The township mows and does other maintenance, but does not focus on repairing, resetting and cleaning the stones," she said, so volunteers Kay Gary and Ed Hoerig have spent the last several summers repairing broken headstones and unearthing those that had sunk deep into the ground.
"I think some of the saddest stories are of the families that lost so many members at the same time and you don't know why," Wynkoop said.
Among those buried within the cemeteries are the original settlers of Trumbull County, a veteran of the War of 1812, a member of the United States Colored Troops in the Civil War, a former slave, and an unknown individual in a grave marked from 1808 - only five years after Ohio became an official state.
Kay said, while they are able, the association will continue to care for the headstones as they have since their own founding in 1904.
"It looks like someone cares now," she said. "We'll do what we can but we have no control over what develops."
Dubos said the trustees haven't discussed what their next step of action since the cemetery levy failed. They will be meeting with Local Government Services in the near future to discuss options for their state of fiscal caution. He is however determined to continue the maintenance at more than the legal minimum.
"People deserve better than that," he said.