Government is not a business, and generally that’s a good thing. Business in America is about earning a profit, accumulating wealth, and gaining influence over public opinion. When conducted ethically, business can benefit society; when conducted corruptly, it produces harm.
The mission of government is not to make a profit, but to protect public health and safety, ensure order, provide a legal framework for the conduct of society, and express the will of voters and the public at large.
Government consists of institutions, like our City Council, made up of people elected by the community, and administrations, like our City Manager and staff. Like the rest of society, government and its people must follow laws and regulations in the performance of their functions.
Some operations of government, however, are supposed to function like a business. Our local government calls such business-like operations Enterprise Funds, which means that they generate their own revenues, use them to cover their own operating costs, and invest in physical upkeep and improvements of their operation. One example of an Enterprise Fund is our Water Fund, and another is the Sonoma Cemetery, which includes two properties: the Mountain and Valley Cemeteries.
The Mountain Cemetery, in particular, is historic, and is the burial place of many of Sonoma’s prominent historical figures, among others. Over the decades, the Cemetery Fund has required yearly loans from Sonoma’s General Fund to subsidize its operations; its revenues have been insufficient to cover its costs.
A recent Sonoma County Grand Jury report slammed the City’s management of its Cemetery Enterprise Fund, noting that it not only continues to lose money, but that it has even sold its services and materials to the public at a loss. Burial urns, for example, have been sold to customers for less than their cost through neglect and sloppiness.
As for future burial revenues, because there are no in-ground plots available, there will be no burial revenues. At least that’s clear.
Without question, if the City of Sonoma wishes to remain in the cemetery business, it needs to do much better. Government is not a business, but when it runs one it needs to do it right. Losing money due to neglect and inattention, requiring loans from the General Fund that will never be repaid is, in our opinion, unacceptable.
Recommendations made by consultants over the past decade for the city to hire a dedicated Cemetery Fund manager have been ignored. Instead, responsibility for the management of the Enterprise Fund has fallen to staff who, lacking direct business experience, have dropped the ball.
Criticism by the Grand Jury is wholly appropriate. Either the City of Sonoma should wrap up being in the cemetery business or get its act together and do it right.
Not all the real estate owned by the City of Sonoma needs to make money. Maintenance of the Sonoma Plaza, for example, is done at an accepted cost for which money is allocated in the budget. The same can be done with the city’s two cemetery parcels; their maintenance costs can simply become part of the yearly budget, and remain available as parks for visits by the public.
Ideas about selling the cemeteries will never be viable, and engaging yet another consultant is a waste of time and money. If the city wants to remain in the cemetery business, then it needs to demonstrate it can do so responsibly.