Business owner says new city plan creates unfair competition

BELOIT — As cremation rates continue to rise in America the city is set to expand its memorial services at area cemeteries, drawing complaints from local business.

A longtime business owner in the area is speaking out against the upcoming practice he sees as an infringement upon his operations at local cemeteries, while the city argues the new services could reduce memorial costs for grieving residents.

The issue stems from providing cremation urn housing, called columbariums, which can retail from anywhere of $4,000 to $6,000. The structures are large enough to hold multiple urns.

Jackson Monument owner Rick Elliott officially complained to city cemetery staff when he learned the city planned to enter the market, and said the city could have unfair advantages and lower overhead costs than private businesses in the area. Jackson Monument marked 150 years as a Beloit business late last year.

“Everyone in the memorial industry should be concerned,” Elliott stressed. “I personally think it’s an invasion. The government is supposed to protect the people, and not be our business competitors.”

City Cemetery Coordinator Robert Pokorney said the city’s new program will help bolster cemetery revenue, while meeting the challenges of the transitioning role that cemeteries will face in the years to come as cremation rates increase.

No revenue projections were made available to the Beloit Daily News.

The city will look to expand its end-of-life options from basic inurnment in the Spreading Tower vault, to higher-end private estate columbariums. The city currently has procedures to place columbariums, but current guidelines are too cost prohibitive, Pokorney said.

Currently, residents must purchase four grave sites and have a columbarium placed in the center as a monument. The to-be-determined pricing structure will include an all inclusive purchase of a grave site, columbarium and recording of inurnments; or the purchase of a grave site for the option to purchase a memorial from retailers as long as they fit size guidelines.

“This new program would reduce that high cost and make it more marketable,” Pokorney said.

The city’s East lawn Cemetery currently sells specific memorials, Pokorney said, and has done so since the mid-90s. He said the cemetery has requested multiple times for both families and local funeral homes to offer the new services.

“We’ve had to turn (them) away because of not having these options established and implemented,” Pokorney said.

By 2020, U.S. cremation rates are projected to reach 54.3 percent, up from 49 percent in 2016, according to the Cremation Association of North America. In the area, there are currently around 12 Stateline businesses capable of producing these elaborate monuments to honor the deceased.

The Wisconsin Association of Monument Builders, of which Elliott is a sitting board member, called the city’s decision to enter the market “highly unusual.”

City Manager Lori Luther disputed that claim, and said the move to involve municipalities was a “growing trend.”

Of various Wisconsin memorial service providers contacted by the Beloit Daily News, all were unfamiliar with a municipality looking to expand its services. Wayne Sormrud, owner of Archie Monument & Stone, said he was involved in a similar dispute in 2010 when the city of Waukesha sought to sell monuments, caskets and burial sites. Multiple funeral directors were set to sue the municipality, but the issue was never litigated.

Luther was the city administrator in Waukesha from 2008 to 2011. She declined comment on whether or not the Waukesha plan was brought forward by her.

No timeline has been released by the city on its implementation schedule, with officials noting the plan “has yet to be officially named.”
Elliott said the impending changes the city will make could create a cloud of uncertainty for other area businesses.

“There’s an aura of wondering amongst those in the industry as if to say, ‘Is my city next?’” Elliott said.