HOULTON, Maine — The third time proved to be the charm in passing along a rate increase for cremated remains.
Members of the Houlton Town Council had previously discussed the rate increase at two prior meetings, but each time, expressed reluctance to raise the cost of a burial.
Monday evening, the council showed no such unwillingness, after receiving additional information from Cemetery Director Milton Cone and unanimously approved the increase.
Previously, the town charged $75 for cremated remains, but under the new plan that fee is going up to $125. The weekend/holiday fee is also set to increase from $125 to $175.
Houlton Town Manager Butch Asselin explained that after speaking with officials from both Dunn’s Funeral Home and Bowers Funeral Home, the new rates would bring the town more in line with what other communities charge.
Back on July 29, 2013, the council approved increases to cemetery fees that included raising the rate for opening a traditional gravesite from $300 to $425. In addition, a weekend/holiday fee was approved at $475, while the rate for an infant grave was raised from $45 to $75. The weekend/holiday fee for infants is $125. An infant is considered any child from birth to 6 months of age.
At that time, cremated remains were not included in the price restructuring. That omission was an oversight according to Asselin.
Council chairman Paul Cleary previously stated he had received numerous phone calls from residents against the increase and he himself was still not convinced it was necessary. The council chairman may only vote to break a tie and therefore could not cast a vote on this subject.
“My question is, ‘Why are we doing this?’” Cleary said. “Is it because we need extra revenue out at the cemetery? I still don’t understand why.”
Cone said the procedure for a burial is no different for cremated remains as it is for full-body burials.
He also noted that the cost associated with a burial was more than just the time it takes to open and close a gravesite. He said it probably takes about 15 minutes to open and another 15 minutes to close a gravesite, but sometimes workers spend anywhere from one to two hours waiting for the service to be finished.
“When a service occurs, the crew is respectful and not standing there at the gravesite waiting for the service to be done,” he said. “Plus there are times after a service is completed when family members stay. We have seen times where our crew has waited in excess of two hours before they can complete the process. We are very sympathetic to the needs of the families.”
There is also research that needs to be done where cemetery officials have to check and see if the person has a lot, verify there is enough room on the lot and ensure sure the proper spot is marked out, Cone added.
Councilor Sue Tortello said she too checked with other communities to find out their costs, and discovered Houlton’s fees were lower than many areas.
Cone added the town has seen a big increase in cremations in recent years. Just a few years ago, the town had three or four a year. This past spring, there were 15 traditional burials and 10 cremations. Because of the lower fee schedule for cremations, the town was seeing a “tremendous reduction in revenue,” Cone said.
New contracts for firefighters
In other business, the council unanimously approved a new three-year union contract for firefighters and drivers at the Houlton Fire Department for 2014-17.
According to Asselin, the contract allows for a 6 percent cost-of-living increase in wages, spread out over three years. In 2015 and 2016, the employees will be responsible for 75 percent of any increases to medical/health insurance. Stipends for Firefighter I and Firefighter II certifications were increased from $7 to $9 (FFI) and $8 to $11 per week. Stipends for having a Haz/Mat certification were also increased from $8.63 to $11.20 per week.
Under the contract, firefighters are now eligible for five weeks of vacation after 25 years of service. Prior to this change, the threshold was 30 years of service.
In other agenda items, councilors:
• Approved liquor license renewals for the Chester L. Briggs American Legion Post no. 47 and Elm Tree Diner.
• Accepted a donation of $250 from The Houlton Pioneer Times to be used toward the Houlton Recreation Department’s ongoing playground project.
The next regular council meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014.