Johnson City staff recommends no funding for Oak Hill Cemetery

David Floyd • Aug 29, 2019 at 8:00 PM

A struggling historic cemetery close to downtown likely won’t receive financial assistance from Johnson City.

Assistant City Manager Charlie Stahl has recommended that the City Commission not move forward with a funding request from Oak Hill Cemetery, which serves as the final resting place for city founder Henry Johnson and Col. LeRoy Reeves, the designer of the Tennessee state flag.

After receiving the request, commissioners had asked Stahl to research the implications of funding the cemetery and what other municipalities were doing with their local cemeteries. Although Oak Hill Cemetery’s fundraising organization, Oak Hill Cemetery Friends and Volunteers, is a non-profit, Stahl said the tax dollars would ultimately benefit a privately owned cemetery.

“Based on the fact that the cemetery itself remains privately owned and with the knowledge that other local cemeteries in the public domain are interested in public support, simply stated, we are not comfortable in making a recommendation for funding and have advised the city commission accordingly,” Stahl wrote in an email to Tom Manning, the chairman of the Friends and Neighbors of Oak Hill Cemetery, on Aug. 27.

Stahl is concerned that funding the cemetery could establish a precedent, opening the door for the city to consider funding requests from other private or public cemeteries.

“What makes a privately owned cemetery, regardless of the history and regardless of the heritage of the cemetery, what makes that ... in a better position to fund than any other private property in the city using tax dollars?” Stahl told the Press. “As someone working in local government for 35 years, I don’t see that justification.”

Manning was not totally dismissive of the city’s argument.

“If they help a privately owned business in some way, they’re almost bound to do that to other people,” he said. “I can sort of understand that.”

But, he said the decision puts the cemetery in a difficult situation. The cemetery had initially asked for a $5,000 annual donation from Johnson City.

“It puts us in a barrel,” Manning said. “We’ve got to increase our efforts to do some funding in addition to just depending upon donations from people who have relatives buried up there, and we’re trying to work on that.”

Manning said the non-profit plans on contacting businesses to ask for contributions. They also haven’t given up on the idea of organizing tours or “ghost walks” of the cemetery, but he anticipates donations would still be the most helpful form of financial assistance.

He wonders whether the city could provide small donations, maybe $500 a year, for the maintenance of Henry Johnson’s plot or one or two other plots in the cemetery. A one time donation of about $1,000 or $1,500 would also be helpful, he said.

Manning said the non-profit has raised $9,000 in donations this year, which puts the cemetery in a good position through November “unless something drastic happens.” But, he said maintenance at Oak Hill Cemetery doesn’t really end until late December or January.

“Maintenance at a cemetery is never-ending,” he said. “The only time you can’t do it is when it’s pouring down rain or there’s snow on the ground.”

Manning said the cemetery uses the money it raises to maintain lawn mowers, buy gas, weed eater lines, fertilizer, grass seed and flower bulbs.

“You name it,” he said. “We basically try to cover everything we can.”

Owner Tim McKinney, who inherited the cemetery from his father and serves as the caretaker, said Johnson City does not care about its own history.

“This shouldn’t all be on one person, financially and physically, to maintain this historical landmark,” he said.

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