There is no bright side to the problems Sunnyside Cemetery is having with simply staying alive.
After 25 years of steady decline due to a severe loss of funds, the 110-year-old cemetery now finds itself on the brink of closing its gates, according to Linda Meador, one of the cemetery’s four directors.
It’s difficult to know just where to start: The basic business of keeping the grass at a manageable length and keeping the weeds at bay is a never-ending and eternal battle with nature.
“With the combination of the rain and the fact that our mowing equipment is old and always breaking down, we couldn’t keep up with it,” said Meador. Sunnyside has one groundskeeper, Jose Robles, and to supplement his work, the cemetery uses court-ordered community service workers.
“But because the mowers keep breaking down, the community-service workers use Weed Eaters,” said Meador. More woes: “When the grass was so tall, we accidentally mowed off something like 100 sprinkler heads that need to be repaired.”
And there’s no money for it. A moderately spoiled teenager lives on more money than the cemetery can take from what’s left of its endowment fund, more than $525,000 of which was pilfered and squandered by a former owner in 1994, leaving Sunnyside’s fund at about $541,000, the interest of which is what the cemetery can spend. It is illegal for it to touch the principal.
“We were spending about $2,500 a month and Farmers & Merchants Bank, which handles the endowment, told us that was too much and that at that rate we would invade the corpus of the fund,” said Meador.
Sunnyside has no manager since its last one, Mike Miner, finally retired in November last year after managing the cemetery for more than a quarter-century, and the board of directors can’t afford to hire a new one. Miner squeaked by on a monthly stipend of $1,500, and the only person qualified after the cemetery conducted a job search recently wanted $70,000 a year. The money is simply not there.
“It was more a labor of love for me,” Miner said Tuesday. “I have folks buried there.”
Meador said the cemetery has been trying to get the city to step in for 19 years.
“And we’re not getting anywhere,” she said. “Now, we’re just running on a wing and a prayer. I honestly don’t know what we’re going to. I told (Mayor Robert Garcia’s chief of staff) Mark Taylor in our last meeting in April that we’d try to keep Sunnyside open until the end of July or the first part of August, and then we’ll have to close the gates.”
Taylor said that city staff has been working on a solution to the problem, but City Manager Pat West said Tuesday that negotiations with Sunnyside are not currently underway.
West said he hadn’t heard about the possibility of Sunnyside closing.
“Our understanding was they were funded well enough to run for multiple years and if something egregious happened, we would step in,” West said. “But that’s horrible news if they were to close. I don’t think the city would turn its back on that asset. It’s a truly iconic piece of Long Beach.”
West said the city is not currently in negotiations with Sunnyside. However, if it closed, the city would “put something together,” he said, including the possibility of looking at a nonprofit to run it.
The city could also take over the 13-acre cemetery, West said, possibly under the umbrella of the Parks, Recreation & Marine department. The city oversees the 3.5-acre Municipal Cemetery adjacent to Sunnyside with noticeably better-maintained grounds than Sunnyside.
Meador said if Sunnyside could afford to water as much as the Municipal Cemetery, “we could be green and beautiful too.”
“It’s just heartbreaking to see what’s become of Sunnyside,” she said. “I have 17 relatives buried here and there are many people with more buried here. The whole situation just makes me sick. I just wish the city could have some pride and do what’s right.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Sunnyside Cemetery’s endowment currently stands at $541,000, not $70,000.
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