With no money for upkeep, Prospect Cemetery Association board to disband
Allegheny County Orphans Court could decide Prospect Cemetery's future. That's fitting — it's about to be orphaned.
The Brackenridge cemetery is owned by the Prospect Cemetery Association, but the association's six-member board of directors, frustrated by a lack of finances and community support, is about to self-destruct. The 17-acre tract will essentially be left without a custodian or guardian.
“Our attorney is telling us what we should do is resign and petition orphans court to have a judge make a decision on what should be done with the remainder of the (financial) portfolio,” said Curt Murtland of Freeport, the association's president.
“It really needs to be maintained by the community, that's the bottom line,” he said. “If the community doesn't step up, it's going to fall into ruin. I have 16 years of my life wrapped up in that place and to see it looking like that just breaks my heart.”
Money, or a lack of it, is a critical factor. Murtland said it cost $15,000 to keep the grass cut and trimmed last year but with only about $5,000 left to its name, they had to lay off the groundskeeper.
“In Prospect's case, it was in good financial condition until 2008 when the financial crunch came,” said Gerald DeAngelis, a Freeport attorney, who is providing legal advice to the association at no cost.
Through the years, the association received proceeds from the sale of plots, which once sold for $10 to $20, and $600 from its share of the $1,250 grave-opening fee. The money went into an account to pay for perpetual care.
Murtland said, to keep the money growing, the association invested it through the firm Solomon Smith Barney. He said, by law, the investments had to be conservative, triple-A rated securities or municipal bonds, and the association chose the AAA securities. Then the financial collapse of 2007-08 occurred.
“What we all found out is that what we thought were triple-A securities really were not triple A. They were more like B securities. That's why they went belly up,” Murtland said.
Suddenly, a $500,000 portfolio was worth less than $100,000.
What complicates the financial picture is how the association works. As an association, the cemetery is owned by its members, basically anybody who purchased a lot there. Since it was founded in 1863, 17,000 of those members have taken up permanent residence in the 17-acre tract.
Murtland said Prospect is about 98 percent full and has only about 100 mostly single, scattered, usable lots available for purchase at $700 each.
“People are not really interested in single lots. They are usually looking for two together and maybe a couple for their kids,” he said. “We just can't offer that. We don't have that.”
Also, there are not many funerals taking place or pending in the future.
“People are still getting buried there, but a lot of them are getting buried on family plots that have been there 30, 40, 50, 60 years,” Murtland said.
“We did one last year where the lot was bought in 1910,“ said Cindy Homburg, a member of the Prospect board.
“Without people buying lots and interments being made, that's their major source of revenue,” DeAngelis said. “Consequently, the assets have been reduced to almost zero.”
Fundraising efforts have been initiated by the association for the past several years. They've including financial appeal letters to lot owners and relatives of those buried in the cemetery, but Homburg said the association collected only about $4,000.
Homburg raises several hundred dollars through tours of Prospect. She said it has the graves of many prominent people in local history such as Judge Henry Marie Brackenridge and his family, who provided the land for Tarentum and Brackenridge boroughs and Harrison Township. And there are more than 700 veterans, including a number who fought in the Civil War.
“We have a guy buried up there who was actually in the funeral procession for President Lincoln,” she said. “I really feel that if I could get this designated an historic cemetery, we could get some grants.”
She said she is continuing with that effort.
As the association's finances declined, Murtland said, the board kept slashing costs. He said the cemetery no longer has a paid secretary, and he has never taken a penny of the small salary he has been entitled to since taking over as president after his father, James Murtland, the previous president, died in 1998.
“We continue to cut costs everywhere we could,“ he said. “There is nobody at the cemetery now who collects a salary.”
That left the association no choice but to ask local government officials — from Brackenridge and its neighbors, Harrison and Tarentum — for help in maintaining the property.
“Brackenridge Borough just continues to refuse to do anything,” Murtland said, adding that the association has had no response from Tarentum and Harrison.
Like most small municipalities in the Valley and around the state, Brackenridge runs on a tight budget. Officials wrestle with the budget each year to avoid tax increases.
Bob Kemmery, Brackenridge Council president, said there is little sentiment among borough officials for taking over the maintenance of Prospect. He said the borough's solicitor, Craig Alexander, is researching what the borough's obligations might be under the law. Alexander did not return a call seeking comment for this story.
“They're just like dumping it in our lap,” Kemmery said. “They sold the lots, they got the money and now they want us to take it.”
“Nobody knows that much about it,” he said. “Do we have to do it? That's what we're looking into.”
DeAngelis took umbrage with Kemmery's comments, noting that Prospect Cemetery Association is and always has been nonprofit with any proceeds put back into the property.
“ ‘They' who made the money don't exist, because it's all sitting up off of 10th Avenue and Prospect Street,” DeAngelis said “It's not like they made their money and walked away. I think that is a little naïve or even insulting.”
DeAngelis said one thing he is sure of is that the Prospect board of directors will resign. But whether it could become a court case, he is uncertain.
“Until I can ascertain what I want the court to do with this thing, I don't see any purpose in going to court to file a petition,” he said.
Tom Yerace is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.