BENTON HARBOR — Benton Harbor city commissioners will need to find a new manager for the city’s two cemeteries by March 15.
The current manager, Bert Edquist, said he gave the city last week the required 120-day notice that he would no longer manage Morton Hill Cemetery in Benton Harbor and Crystal Springs Cemetery in Benton Township.
“I decided that I’m turning 70 next year, and I want to cut back,” said Edquist, who owns North Shore Memory Gardens in Hagar Township, Mission Hills Memorial Chapel, Crematory and Gardens in Niles and North Shore Event Center in Benton Township.
In addition, he said managing the cemeteries doesn’t make financial sense. He said that since he took over management on Oct. 1, 2013, North Shore Memory Gardens has loaned almost $50,000 to Crystal Springs. And with the way the business is going, he said that debt will only grow bigger.
“All that money is payroll that North Shore has fronted Crystal Springs,” he said.
Morton Hill Cemetery is 2.78 acres and is fully developed, while Crystal Springs Cemetery is 120 acres, with only 65 acres developed.
When Edquist leaves, he takes with him all of the equipment used to maintain the cemeteries unless an arrangement can be made with the city. In the 20-year agreement with the city, which was negotiated by then-Emergency Manager Tony Saunders II, Edquist agreed to buy the existing cemetery equipment for $100,000 and to pay a one-time $25,000 management fee.
Lack of quorum
The cemeteries are owned and controlled by the city through the Benton Harbor Cemetery Board. But that is one of the problems. Edquist said the board only meets quarterly and often doesn’t have enough members for a quorum, so no business can be taken care of.
Over the years, Edquist said he brought his concerns to the cemetery board, but there was never a resolution.
In May 2014, he told cemetery board members that a system needs to be set up to pay for problems to be fixed – problems created before he became manager.
“I’m going to cure anything that happened previously that doesn’t cost me money, but if there’s a cost involved, the contract specifically states that I’m not responsible for problems that were created before I got there,” he said at the time.
But the board members could take no action because there wasn’t a quorum.
At an August 2018 meeting, board members talked about several problems, including potholes at Crystal Springs. At the time, Edquist said the cash flow is simply not there to fix the roads.
“Those roads, when I took it over, were in the same shape they are in now,” he said. “My only option ... is to block the road up.”
Again, no action could be taken because there wasn’t a quorum.
Asking for help
On Oct. 2, he appeared before the city’s legislative committee, where he asked that the agreement be changed, with the city chipping in $4,000 a month so he can maintain the cemeteries properly.
He told the committee members that he knew the Crystal Springs records were messed up before he took over, but had no idea how bad.
“We have burials out there we don’t have a clue where they’re at,” he said. “We’re working on two of them right now where spaces were sold years ago and there’s burials in them from somebody else.”
Edquist said he’s been rectifying situations like this the entire six years he has been managing the cemetery.
“For instance, I got one now where I’m probably going to have to move five burials,” he said. “There’s fees involved in that. I’ve been eating all that.”
But it’s more than about money.
“I can make it work financially, but I’m not going to be part of it,” Edquist said. “I don’t want that place looking like it would look if you don’t put money into it. ... I haven’t been in this business all these years to disrespect a family’s burial place. Basically, for me, it’s coming to that because of a lack of funds.”
He said North Shore Memory Gardens has a perpetual care trust fund that contributes about $50,000 a year to the cemetery’s care. Crystal Springs was believed to have a perpetual care fund, but no one has been able to say how much money is in it or if it even exists.
City Commissioner Ruthie Haralson, who is on the cemetery board, said the cemeteries had been run poorly for years before Edquist took over. During those years, she said money went missing and people had to be given back their money because their loved ones were buried in the wrong place.
She said they never figured out where the missing money went.
“We can’t run anything without any money,” she said.
Commissioner Sharon Henderson, who chairs the committee, said Edquist should have known what he was getting into.
“I can appreciate what you’re saying, she said. “... I’m not being callous, but it’s also a sense of buyer’s remorse. Of purchasing something and not having all of the correct information.”
She said the city has money problems of its own.
When contacted by phone Tuesday, Mayor Marcus Muhammad said this is another example of the failure of the emergency managers. The Benton Harbor Parks and Recreation Conservancy was created by Saunders before he left in March 2014. Muhammad said that entity is on its death bed, if it hasn’t already been dissolved.
“As mayor, I’ll work closely with the council and interim city manager to make sure those with loved ones buried there are taken care of as we transition back into the hands of the city,” he said.
Contact: lwrege@TheHP.com, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege