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Texas county commissioner told to stop digging graves for free

SHARE Texas county commissioner told to stop digging graves for free

PETERSBURG, Texas — As a Hale County commissioner, Mario Martinez has had a lot on his plate: advisory boards, budget meetings, legislative oversight and digging graves.

Digging graves?

"I felt that was just a job that I inherited," Martinez said. "Just like the commissioner before me did it himself, I was just doing what the others had done. No one ever really griped about it."

That was true until last week, when County Attorney Chris Prentice notified the commissioner that the activity was thoughtful but, unfortunately, illegal.

"The whole point is they are using not only county assets but man-hours to benefit private individuals," Prentice said. "It's the same thing as grading a farmer's driveway so you can keep his vote."

The practice of using county-owned resources to dig funeral plots in Petersburg Cemetery became common around 1950 in this town of 1,600, some 25 miles northeast of Lubbock.

"The county has done it as far back as anyone can remember," city manager Cullen Davis said. "I think the populace at large appreciates it and views it as a service the county provides and one that they can actually see. That's the way little towns try to operate, but politics sometime get in the way."

Davis suspects that infighting among the county's four commissioners led one to tattle about the grave digging. The whole episode has left many in Petersburg "scratching their heads," he said.

At the cemetery, plots cost only $40. The money is used for the upkeep of the community-run cemetery, which has never charged anyone to have a grave dug.

Digging and filling a grave in Petersburg should cost about $385, said Stan Workman, who is retired from West Texas Wilbert Vault in Lubbock, a firm that digs graves throughout the region.

"Whenever anybody would call down here to get a grave opened, I would tell them to call the county because they do it for free," he said. "I expected a long time ago that somebody would complain about this."

The practice is not without precedent. In neighboring Oklahoma, a statute permits county workers to dig graves — as long as there's a county policy permitting the practice.

"What we require them to do is to establish a policy, which is not that Uncle Ted gets buried for free, and that type of thing," said Jim McGoodwin, Oklahoma director of special audits.

That's where the practice in Oklahoma and what's going on in this small Texas town differ, especially since Texas has no such statute.

"Anybody who is buried in any other cemetery in Hale County has to pay $200," Prentice said. "It's a nice thing to do for people, but it's just not legal."

Legal or not, Mayor Jim Fox said the practice of a county commissioner hopping on a county-owned backhoe and digging graves was in keeping with the close bond of the residents.

"If you ever go to a funeral in Petersburg, you don't know what race the person was," he said. "We all went to school together and live together. We're a small little community, more than a town, and we all stick together."

Told of the practice's illegality, commissioner Martinez has agreed to stop the service, even though many here still believe it is a responsibility of local government.

"It saddens me because it seems like we're not being able to help our fellow man like we used to," he said. "It's taking away a part of our history. What we've always done there, suddenly, we are not going to be able to do anymore."

Prentice said he understands the community's frustration but insists that another manner of providing the service must be found. Meanwhile, he said, he hasn't been the favorite son of the west Texas town.

"I'm surprised the people in the graves haven't come up and hit me with things," he said.

On the Net:

Oklahoma State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors: www.state.ok.us/~embalm

Texas Funeral Directors Association: tfda.com/index.html