TWENTYNINE PALMS PUBLIC CEMETERY DISTRICT NOW WHIPPED INTO SHAPE
Working with residents "restores my faith in humanity" says new general manager
Did you know Twentynine Palms has its own public cemetery?
It does and it's no stranger to scandal. The two previous managers were arrested for embezzlement. Stacey Lee served as manager from 2012 until January 2020 when she was charged with misusing cemetery funds. And before that the manager who served from 2008 to 2012 was also shown the door after misuse of funds came to light.
But since early 2020 the cemetery has had a new sheriff in town.
Emily Barry Helm was working as an Administrative Assistant to the Director of Facilities and Operations at Copper Mountain College when she was asked if she'd be willing to consider a part-time, interim stint managing the cemetery. She said she'd give it a try.
When she arrived she found a bit of a mess. The grounds and buildings were suffering from neglect and deferred maintenance. All paperwork was literally on paper and three nests of rats had taken up residence in the document archive. Grounds maintenance staff had to cobble together antiquated equipment, but every year they fell further behind on upkeep.
"My goal is to make this place approachable. I want it to be like a big hug when you come in" — Emily Helm, General Manager, Twentynine Palms Public Cemetery
Now it's a different story. Emily pointed to the cemetery's shiny new electric dump truck. "Now we have fewer staff but they get way more done."
Gone are the rat-infested files, after Emily oversaw a project to scan all cemetery documents.
The historic cemetery headquarters, a thick block-walled, Mission Revival building constructed in 1941, now has a fresh roof. Historic brickwork and arched doorways which over the years had been drywalled are now exposed and freshly painted. Mini-split AC units replaced the old swamp cooler and gas heater. The original terra-cotta tile was carpeted over, it's now exposed and again gleams.
The cemetery grounds are 20 acres. The grounds had been neglected too. There's still work to do, but things are much improved. Non-native trees added over the years were damaging sites (Emily prefers calling them "sites" rather than graves) and markers. Removing non-natives began prior to Emily's tenure and she says some were upset by the change. But it's all in service of the cemetery's guests -- the departed and their loved ones.
Ten geometric steel sculptures by local artist Simi Dabah now dot the grounds.
"The best part of this job is going to services," Emily says. She personally attends almost every service. Her understanding is that her predecessors rarely attended one.
Becoming cemetery General Manager has given Emily a crash course in empathy. She says she spends hours with families and friends of deceased Twentynine Palms residents, listening to the stories they tell, helping them as best she can to process their loss. "It restores my faith in humanity every day," she says.
Three years serving in the Marine Corps gave Emily a keen appreciation for SOPs -- standard operating procedures. A set of white 3-ring binders sits on the credenza near her desk. "If I disappear tomorrow this place will keep running fine without me."
Minutes for every cemetery board meeting are now online. The cemetery's website at 29palmscemetery.org has all the recent governance documents for the cemetery. Budget, audits, even a trustee application. Clean as a whistle. "I love transparency," says Emily.
As a public cemetery, cemetery staff are not allowed to favor or suggest providers for markers or services.
"My goal is to make this place approachable. I want it to be like a big hug when you come in," Emily says. Toward this, last October Twentynine Palms Public Cemetery hosted its first Day of the Dead event. Local citizens and CMC art students created 13 alters, and local families and residents came out to see and enjoy them.
Ten geometric steel sculptures by local artist Simi Dabah are installed on cometary grounds.
The Twentynine Palms Public Cemetery District has its own territory, different from that of the City of Twentynine Palms or the Twentynine Palms Water District. Its territory extends north to Desert Heights and east into Wonder Valley. In its area, a small tax apportionment is added to all county property tax bills, and it's this apportionment which provides the bulk of the Cemetery District's budget.
A set of white 3-ring binders sits on the credenza near her desk. "If I disappear tomorrow this place will keep running fine without me."
The Cemetery District has undergone two LAFCO service reviews in the last two years. LAFCOs are state-mandated, quasi-judicial countywide Commissions whose purview is to oversee boundary changes of cities and special districts, the formation of new agencies, including the incorporation of new cities and districts, and the consolidation or reorganization of special districts and or cities.
As of this writing, April 21, 2022, the Cemetery District is awaiting its most recent LAFCO review.
In recent years -- and increasingly loudly in the last few months -- the City of Twentynine Palms and its City Manager/Finance Director, Frank Luckino, have floated the idea of absorbing the local special districts into the City. This would mean the existing Twentynine Palms Water District and the Twentynine Palms Public Cemetery District would be dissolved as independent agencies and become parts of the City.
Emily isn’t sure whether this scenario will come to pass, but neither does she rule it out. The fates of the Twentynine Palms Public Cemetery District, the Twentynine Palms Water District and whether or not Desert Heights continues to exist as unincorporated San Bernardino County are all interdependent. “By taking over the Cemetery District, the city would be taking over a potential liability," she says.
As things stand, if a pipe bursts at the Cemetery, this isn't the city's problem. But if the city took over the Cemetery District, suddenly the city would be on the hook for any issues or problems at the Cemetery.
It’s unclear whether the city genuinely has the appetite for those kinds of additional responsibilities.
“By taking over the Cemetery District, the city would be taking over a potential liability" she says
She expects the upcoming LAFCO service review of the Cemetery District to be very positive. In other words, the service review will likely support the scenario of the Cemetery continuing to function as its own Special District.
Emily plans to serve as cemetery manager for four more years.
She's excited about the current Cemetery board of trustees and talks about the diversity of skills these five local residents bring to the job. Accounting (one trustee is a CPA), IT, and business administration are all well represented on the board. "Board meetings used to go on for three hours, now meetings are usually 45 minutes," Emily says. "I'm excited to have people on the board who bring their current skills to the team."
Going forward, Emily foresees forming a related nonprofit, perhaps "Friends of the Cemetery." A nonprofit like this could accomplish things like raising funds to expand the cemetery. The cemetery owns 10 adjacent acres. This is land which now sits vacant -- so expanding onto this land could increase the cemetery's size by 50%.
The cemetery's land was donated by the Lage family in 1934. Emily makes a point of saying, "The Lage family donated the land to the *citizens* of Twentynine Palms." After all, this was long before there was a City of Twentynine Palms. The City was incorporated 53 years later, in 1987.
With any luck, the feisty Twentynine Palms Public Cemetery District will continue into the 21st century, as an independent entity and Special District. Over almost 90 years, the Cemetery District has certainly had its ups and downs, but the last couple of years have been full of ups. If the 1930s-era Lage family could see it today they'd likely be proud.