A dismal civil grand jury report about city-managed cemeteries in the city of Sonoma depicts oversight buried in dysfunction, dead-end links to cemetery webpages, uncollected sales tax and undertakers undercharging for certain services — all of which could lead to an endowment designed to pay for upkeep ceasing to exist.

Civil grand juries are panels convened annually in each county around the state to investigate and report on local government operations. The jury in Sonoma County self-initiated their investigation into the city’s cemeteries, though reviews of some of the burial sites on social media range from “appears neglected and poorly maintained” to “it’s just a disgrace that a place for one’s final resting place is so neglected.”

The jury report, titled “City of Sonoma Cemeteries: Don’t Bury Your Problems,” outlines several “serious problems” facing the city’s Cemetery Program, which oversees three: Mountain, Valley and Veterans’ cemeteries. All three are maintained through a Cemetery Enterprise Fund, which operates like a business and “is expected to be self-supporting and not subsidized by government funds,” reads the report.

A sign marks the entrance to the Mountain Cemetery in Sonoma on May 14, 2023. Along with Veteran’s Cemetery and Valley Cemetery, it is one of three burial locations under management by the city of Sonoma. (Sarah Stierch/Flickr, CC BY)

People can purchase land and “tangible” items and services from the city-run cemeteries, such as porcelain memorial photos, burial liners, concrete bases for markers, ring and vase sets and plastic vases. Crypts and niches are also for sale, though there are no remaining in-ground burial plots available. The city of Sonoma is supposed to take endowment fees at the time of purchase of all of these things and put them in the endowment fund to ensure that money will always be available for upkeep of the cemeteries.

The jury found that Sonoma is “not assessing, reporting, collecting or paying” sales tax on tangible items sold. They are also underselling some items at below cost, having never kept up with price fluctuations.

“The Grand Jury has determined that the Cemetery Enterprise Fund is losing money due, in part, to numerous management problems,” the jury said.

Years of unpaid taxes, missing audits

For starters, there is no dedicated manager of operations, nor is there a policy and procedures manual or training program. The jury could find no evidence that regular audits of finances or staff performance reviews were taking place. There is also no information available to the public about any fee schedules, which is a symptom of not having a marketing plan.

Most notably, the jury alleges that the city of Sonoma cemeteries have not “assessed, collected, or paid sales tax for at least 13 years and presumably longer,” recommending that it rectify its sales tax problem by contacting the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration “immediately.”

There are two funded entities that involve the city-owned cemeteries, the Cemetery Endowment Fund and the Cemetery Enterprise Fund. The endowment funds are held in escrow and invested; however, a steady decrease in cemetery revenue and inadequate return on investments led the City Council in 2016 to begin transferring $50,000 out of the endowment over to the enterprise fund every year.

“At this rate, if the cemeteries do not improve revenues, the Endowment Fund will eventually be depleted,” said the jury. If that happens, the city of Sonoma will have to assume all operation and maintenance expenses.

The civil grand jury determined that Sonoma’s cemetery endowment fund will soon be depleted, leaving the city on the hook for operation and maintenance expenses.

To put the endowment in perspective, in 2005, it was estimated that the fund should hold about $10 million and expect a 3 percent return of interest, proving about $300,000 for perpetual care and maintenance.

“In reviewing the general ledger for 2021-2022, the Grand Jury could find only one item reporting interest income for the Endowment Fund, in the amount of $120,” reads the report.

These problems are not a surprise to the city and its Council. Sonoma has contracted twice in the past 18 years with consultants who studied the problems and made recommendations, the jury said. The city’s current budget also has a goal of resolving the cemetery fund’s deficit.

Oversight in grave condition

Part of the problem, the jury said, is a revolving door of city administrators who have lost touch over time with cemetery oversight, thus creating a “lack of organizational memory regarding cemetery operations.”

As for undercharging, the jury offered a few examples. The city of Sonoma has been charging $175 for a ring and vase set that adheres to a crypt, even though the vendor they use sells them to the city for $250. The city has also been charging $13 per character for inscriptions, despite being charged $15 by the vendor.

Lichen grows at the base of the headstone marking the grave of infant Jeanette Yvonne Grooms on Dec. 4, 2022, at Mountain Cemetery in Sonoma. (Sarah Stierch/Flickr, CC BY)

Civil grand juries don’t just explore problems, they are supposed to offer recommendations and solutions.

In this report, the jury recommends that the city get its tax problem straightened out with the state by July 31. By December, the jury recommends taking a “thorough” analysis of systems, processes and procedures regarding the cemetery program and adopt a real plan to resolve the deficit. A policy and procedure manual should also be created by the end of the year, along with hiring or designating someone on staff to manage the cemetery program.

The jury is requiring a written response to their report from the Sonoma City Council and recommends a response from City Manager David Guhin.

Guhin, who only just assumed his position as city manager, did not respond to a request for comment.

Katy St. Clair got her start in journalism by working in the classifieds department at the East Bay Express during the height of alt weeklies, then sweet talked her way into becoming staff writer, submissions editor, and music editor. She has been a columnist in the East Bay Express, SF Weekly, and the San Francisco Examiner. Starting in 2015, she begrudgingly scaled the inverted pyramid at dailies such as the Vallejo Times-Herald, The Vacaville Reporter, and the Daily Republic. She has her own independent news site and blog that covers the delightfully dysfunctional town of Vallejo, California, where she also collaborates with the investigative team at Open Vallejo. A passionate advocate for people with developmental disabilities, she serves on both the Board of the Arc of Solano and the Arc of California. She lives in Vallejo.