The City Needs Gravediggers, Too
PARD’s long, hot summer with interment services
Want to be a gravedigger? Austin faces a very real possibility of not having anyone to manage interments at its public cemeteries by the end of this year. Its external contract for burial services runs out in November.
The city has five working, city-run cemeteries – Oakwood, Oakwood Annex, Evergreen, and Plummers in East Austin, and the largest, Austin Memorial Park, in West Austin – totaling a massive almost 200 acres. Originally the responsibility of Public Works, they were transferred to Parks and Recreation in 1986, which then contracted InterCare Corp. in 1990. In 2013, PARD terminated that contract and reclaimed direct management. The administrative side, like selling plots, and day-to-day maintenance such as mowing and large-scale cleanups (mounted every four months) are handled in-house.
Everything, that is, except for the process of interment: digging graves and burials. That was contracted out to another firm, Interment Services Inc., for five years, in a deal that expired July 31, with the option for a five-year extension. The city opted against that extension, and instead began the process of moving interment in-house. Which is not as easy as it sounds.
Digging a grave is not the same as digging in a vegetable patch. Graves must be a specific size, and new graves often must be dug alongside existing occupied plots, without causing damage to surrounding graves or headstones. Austin enjoys uniquely problematic ground conditions, with thin topsoil and thick bedrock. In a July 25 memo, PARD Acting Director Kimberly McNeeley warned City Council that in the current budget cycle, "The City cannot afford to hire untrained staff to perform interment services who may potentially damage other graves/monuments, which would put the City at risk." Specifically, McNeeley warned that if the city did not have qualified and experienced staff in place, it could end up violating the Texas Health and Safety Code Sec. 713.011, which requires municipalities operating a public cemetery to maintain them to a level that ensures no risk to public health. Since the city does not yet have the in-house expertise, but would be able to hire and train staff in far less than the five years of the extended contract with Interment Services, staff decided to not take up the five-year extension. Instead, on June 11, they issued a request for solicitation of interment and burials services, for a two-year term.
But when the solicitation period ended July 3, PARD found they had no bidders, not even the current contractee.
PARD Cemetery Manager Tonja Walls-Davis noted not just a lack of bidders for this particular contract, but a broader lack of options across the state. When the department first did a market study, staff found that the majority of potential service providers are in Dallas, and they turned out to not be interested in effectively setting up a new branch in Austin. "It was the distance," said Walls-Davis. "It was also the fact that we have five different cemeteries, and the difficulty in digging due to the soil content and the rock." Then there's the complexity of dealing with a municipality, and not a private graveyard. "There are a lot of requirements that are involved in a city of Austin contract, and a lot of the interment companies are not used to that."
Luckily, the original contract with Interment Services came with a 120-day holdover period. PARD Public Information Specialist Shelley Parks said that with that current continuation, "everything's running smoothly," and will continue in that manner until the period ends on Nov. 28. But what then? PARD is in negotiations with Interment Services, the only available option. The firm has told staff that they'd be interested in an amended three-year contract, at a higher rate; McNeeley recommended that Council go ahead with the extension, and those negotiations are currently with the city's contracting office. At the same time, PARD is still working toward moving interment in-house.
Walls-Davis said she was not sure why Interment Services did not simply bid on the original two-year solicitation but, she said, "They were already in a contract, and to them it would seem more reasonable to negotiate an extension, rather than going out to bid again."