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Johnson City mulls support for Oak Hill Cemetery

David Floyd • Jul 18, 2019 at 10:45 AM

At 149 years old, Oak Hill Cemetery is just a bit younger than Johnson City itself.

“It was started by several of the more prominent people of Johnson City about the time that the city was founded,” said Tom Manning, the chair of Oak Hill Cemetery Friends & Volunteers, the cemetery’s fundraising organization. “A lot of the history of who did what in Johnson City is buried up there at Oak Hill.”

Henry Johnson, the founder of Johnson City, and Col. LeRoy Reeves, the designer of the Tennessee state flag, are both interred at the cemetery, which has experienced difficult financial circumstances over the years.

As of July 7, the cemetery had about $1,000 left to fund operations for the remainder of the year, short of the $10,000 to $15,000 owner and caretaker Timothy McKinney estimates it would cost to maintain the property for an entire year. McKinney said that figure had recently dipped to $200-$300 before being bolstered by a $500 donation.

McKinney calls the cemetery an eight-and-a-half-acre “money pit.”

“That cemetery is not a profitable business, believe me,” he said. “It’s just a labor of love.”

To plug gaps in its funding, the cemetery has asked the city for financial assistance. The fundraising arm of the cemetery recently received 501(c)3 status, which Manning said makes the organization eligible for funding from the city. During an agenda review meeting on Monday, Johnson City Commissioners asked staff to research the kind of support that the city could provide, if any, to Oak Hill Cemetery and come back with a recommendation.

Commissioners discussed the notion of providing a financial gift to the cemetery to honor the city’s sesquicentennial celebration, but nothing formal was decided.

“I don’t see us doing anything, for the next couple of weeks anyway, until we get a little more information on it,” Johnson City Mayor Jenny Brock said on Wednesday.

She said commissioners have also asked staff to research how other cities have handled the upkeep of their historic cemeteries.

Commissioners were not receptive to the idea of taking over ownership of the cemetery.

“Obviously, you’re committing to a lot if you take it over and try to upkeep it from a city standpoint,” Brock said.

At this time, Manning said the fundraising arm of cemetery is hoping to receive money for a commercial lawnmower. The cemetery has gone through six or seven lawn mowers over the years, Manning said, and depending on the brand, he said a commercial lawnmower could cost $6,000 to $7,500.

“I know that’s a lot of money for the city to give us at any one time, but any help they could do to help that sort of thing would be a tremendous assist for us,” he said.

Wise said the city primarily provides non-profit funding to quasi-governmental organizations, but Wise and Brock both pointed to contributions that the city makes to charitable organizations through the waste management department.

Public Works Director Phil Pindzola said that when the city built the Iris Glen Environmental Center, one of the conditions of the original contract was that the waste management department would have to contribute to a mutually agreeable charitable organization in the region.

That fund started at $40,000 and has increased $5,000 every five years. It’s now up to $60,000, which is dispersed once every year, and commissioners have some discretion over how that money is spent.

Pindzola said the city donates to 11 organizations per year. Up to this point, each commissioner designates two groups to receive $5,000 each, and the remaining $10,000 is donated to public art.

Now that Oak Hill Cemetery is a non-profit, Pindzola said it would be eligible.

Wise said the historical qualities of the cemetery, and its proximity to other public amenities, do make it significant, but noted that any hypothetical support that the city provides has to be meaningful and long-lasting.

“If we write a check for $1 or $1,000 or $10,000, that doesn’t fundamentally solve the challenge,” Wise said. “That’s a Band Aid.”

At this point, Wise said commissioners are trying to decide how to move forward.

“I want to do right by our forefathers, and I want to do right by our taxpayers,” Wise said. “I just don’t fully understand how best to do this in this instance.”

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