Fails From the Crypt

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Posted March 18, 2010 in Feature Story

Who knew a cemetery board could be so much drama? The people with the most to complain about are already dead. 

That hasn’t stopped infighting between the Elsinore Valley Cemetery board of trustees, the board of supervisors, the Riverside County Flood Control and Water Conservation District, Caltrans and the City of Lake Elsinore. And it particularly did not stop torrential rains from FEMA-worthy flooding at the cemetery in 2005. What it unleashed was a bit of a shit storm.

In December, Supervisor Bob Buster started looking for applicants for an appointment on the Elsinore Valley Cemetery District board. There still has not been an appointment. But considering the cemetery’s problems and the political turf war that’s boiled over regarding the fate of this final resting place, help for the dead might be a long time coming.

Open the Floodgates

The cemetery board of trustees serves 96 square miles, including all or parts of the cities of Lake Elsinore, Wildomar and Canyon Lake, rural communities like Meadowbrook and Quail Valley and the unincorporated areas in Sedco Hills and Lakeland Village.

There were at least six candidates as of January for the vacant position on the three-person board, according to Robert Caliva, a Buster staff member. Sounds like a pretty cushy position until you learn that said 2005 torrential rains caused plenty of damage at the more than 100-year-old cemetery.

The storm damage also brought to the surface a rift between all government parties concerned.

Prior to the storm, the board of trustees sent numerous letters, starting in August 2004, to the board of supervisors, the City of Lake Elsinore, Caltrans and Riverside County Flood Control asking for assistance. They told of a filled retention basin, the paving over of previously permeable soil across the freeway where a Lowe’s shopping center was built and Caltrans’ lack of culvert maintenance and debris clearance, according to a Riverside County Grand Jury report released in June 2007.

The city of Lake Elsinore’s engineer approved the plans for the shopping center, as well as one for the development of a Home Depot, both of which caused significant problems for the burial site, according to cemetery trustee Richard Staley, Caltrans and Buster’s chief of staff David Stahovich. That they can agree on.

“Back in 2005 there were some flooding issues with the cemetery due to the Lowe’s construction project,” says Caltrans public information officer Terri Kasinga. “Sediment from the project site was washing into the cemetery and lumber yard and across the road due to this work.”

Can’t Tell Them What To Do

Trustees attempted to discuss the problem with the city engineer and the project engineer about the potential for flooding, but their concerns were not addressed, Staley says

“The county turned everything over to flood control,” he recalls. “The city said they had been trying to help all along, but they did not answer the permitting problems.”

The trustees held on to the stack of correspondence that county supervisors and Lake Elsinore never responded to, according to Staley, who has served on the board since 1999.

“We tried to get them to mitigate some of the problems we saw,” he says. “The projects were permitted anyway.”

That’s where there is some gray area. Many fingers are pointed at the city, but there are some pointing back at the board. Stahovich says some of the problems are due to a portion of the property that the board leased out to American Pacific Truss, which also flooded during the rains.

But the biggest culprit, Stahovich says, is the Home Depot project, which filled in a retention basin that would have otherwise helped with the flooding issues. The county is not the boss of the city, nor the board of trustees, Stahovich says.

“We have no jurisdiction or supervision, and then when there is a problem they come to the county,” Stahovich says. “The city contends it had nothing to do with it. The city asserts that they did what they needed to do. That’s a good example of ‘Look to the county when there is a problem.’ We can’t tell them what to do.”

Poor Jewish Graves

When the heavy rains hit, the storm runoff from the other side of Interstate 15 funneled straight into the cemetery, causing considerable damage. The western portion of the property, which was once a private Jewish cemetery called Home of Peace, suffered the worst damage. In accordance with kosher law, the caskets are not covered in cement before burial. During the flooding, county fire crews sandbagged the area so the caskets wouldn’t float away.

It wasn’t unforeseen. There is a stack of correspondence to prove it.

In a Press-Enterprise article not long after, one of the supervisors talked a little dirt. He indicated that the cemetery board did nothing to properly prepare for the flooding.

Adding insult to injury, Riverside County voters had already approved Proposition F in 1986, authorizing the sale of $8 million in bonds to finance flood mitigation improvements in the Lake Elsinore area, including the Arroyo del Toro Channel, which the cemetery is part of. It never got done, and voters are still paying off the bond.

Of the 11 projects authorized by that bond, only four were completed. The 2007 Grand Jury report ordered the board of supervisors and Lake Elsinore to provide written communication whenever the Elsinore Valley Cemetery Board of Trustees makes a complaint.

Projects Get Stalled

According to the county board of supervisor’s response to the Grand Jury report, there was no guarantee that all the priority projects would be completed. State funds from the bond were issued in installments, which slowed progress.

“Unfortunately, project costs increased far beyond those expected at the time the [bond] was approved in 1986,” the report states. “In no smallway (sic), was this due to unforeseen delays in moving this complex project forward.”

At the time, the Lake Elsinore Management Plan was in the works. Coordination between the projects led to the time-consuming reevaluation and restudy of various aspects of the project, the report states. By the time the construction project got underway in 1993, construction costs had skyrocketed. The bulk of the bond proceeds went to the construction of the Lake Elsinore Outlet Channel, which—there is no dispute—was much-needed.

The Grand Jury suggested that the county float another bond issue for the Arroyo Del Toro project, but that is unlikely to happen, Staley says, due to the sagging economy. “People are not going to be happy about a new bond,” he says.

Another Grave Matter?

The good news is that FEMA stepped in with funds to help repair the damage to the cemetery caused by the flooding. Caltrans’ property works properly again, Kasinga says, and Dexter Road was built to allow a 36-inch drain to be replaced with a 48-inch drain.

The cemetery built berms to block the natural flow of water from Caltrans property and this has added to some of their drainage issues, Kasinga says. “The cemetery was built in an area where there is a natural flow of water that affects their property,” Kasinga says.

But there is some positive news: the proposed Arroyo Del Toro project—hey, remember that?—is deep into the design phase, according to Steve Thomas, assistant chief engineer for the flood control district. “It’s probably going to be a year, maybe a little more, before we receive all our environmental permits and secure all necessary right-of-ways for the project,” Thomas says. “But it is going forward and it’s fully funded, so that’s a good thing.”

Not long after the flooding, the Perris Valley Cemetery went bankrupt, putting the burden of a bailout on the county.

Suddenly, the board of supervisors got a lot more interested in what was going down at this cemetery.

Urge to Merge

At an Oct. 22, 2008, Wildomar City Council meeting—Wildomar has a cemetery that the county is hot to merge with the Elsinore Valley Cemetery—Stahovich said that the supervisors were concerned. It’s that whole no-direct-control-or-oversight deal.

The Wildomar City Council is looking at possibly taking over management of the 5.5-acre cemetery from the county. The city was incorporated in July 2008. Staley and the rest of the Elsinore Valley Cemetery trustees don’t want any part of a merger, particularly if the City Council takes over the Wildomar Cemetery.

“We listened and we didn’t like what we heard,” Staley says. “I felt that a merger would not be advantageous to Elsinore or Wildomar cemeteries, and I opposed it and our board opposed it.”

The Riverside Local Agency Formation Commission—a regional body involved in setting boundaries, evaluating cityhood efforts and the like—put off pursuing the merger until Wildomar’s cityhood was decided. “But it appears that effort to at least combine Wildomar and Elsinore (cemetery) districts is not dead,” Staley adds.

The Wildomar City Council will likely want the section of the Elsinore Cemetery that is in Wildomar, Staley says. “That would mean a revenue loss for us,” Staley says. “Revenue is where we live as far as the cemetery district goes, it’s a tax-supported district . . . I don’t believe that the district boundaries and merger questions are going away.”

Intense Scrutiny

One week after the City Council meeting, the county released a report by senior management analyst Elizabeth Olson that analyzed operations, administration, oversight and boundaries of the cemetery districts. Among other things, the county’s Executive Office (Olson) became interested in everything from personal leave to conflict-resolution training to the questionable lease with American Pacific Truss.

The kicker? The Executive Office suggested having all the trustees undergo interviews to re-evaluate their qualifications as well as appoint a county administrator to assist trustees due to past problems. No one was appointed. Now there is an audit in the works, which was due by the end of 2009. The trustees have not received it yet.

“We tried to put something in place where it never existed before,” Stahovich says about the more intense scrutiny of board applicants. The board is the only appointed body that uses general fund dollars that the supervisor’s office does not have direct supervision over due to nearly 100-year-old legislation.

The county would like to see applicants with a financial, business or even a landscaping or construction background. But so far, no one has stepped up. “As soon as we appoint them, it’s a special district,” Stahovich says. “We can’t go back and fire them if they mess up.”

So the same trustees that in 2005 weren’t even worth a response about the looming danger of dead bodies floating down the street are now worrisome enough to nitpick about staff sick time?

Yahweh.

“The Real Agenda”

Since all that, things have smoothed out a bit. Flood Control is working closely with the cemetery board to design a flood mitigation system, so that makes the trustees’ jobs a little easier.

“I think the problems in the past have been corrected,” Buster staffer Caliva says. “But some things are unpredictable.”

Unless you have a stack of letters warning you of impending doom.

“I think oversight is always good, it keeps you on your toes,” Staley says. “But there wasn’t anything unethical that was going on. I’m not sure why there was that push from the county, what the real agenda is here. I thought we were pretty well taking care of taxpayer business—not spending a lot of money we didn’t need to spend. Thought we were doing an honest job. We’ve never had anyone from the county say specifically that we are wrong in anything we are doing.”

Still interested in being a trustee?

“The average person in the community does not concern themselves with it until they need the service,” Staley says. “Then they are not really thinking about it and just trying to take care of the immediate problem.”


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