On March 17, 2014, the Natchitoches Parish Council passed Ordinance #06-2014 that added roads into the Parish System by taking in all roads that provide access to a cemetery and/or church. Those who attended the public meeting held for the Ordinance supported the action overwhelmingly and the Ordinance passed unanimously. Among the reasons offered in support of the Ordinance was that the Parish had been maintaining some of the cemetery roads for years; that some of these cemeteries were the final resting places for loved ones of Parish residents who can’t get access to their family plots without assistance from the Parish; and that some of the cemeteries date back to the Civil War and there is a need to preserve our history.
It is hard to argue against some of these points. And, the need to honor our dead should always be a matter of utmost importance and is not a subject to be disputed. However, there are some facts about Ordinance #06-2014 that were not presented at the meeting that the residents of the Parish should be aware of.
1. The Ordinance, in essence, is an unfunded mandate that puts cemetery and church roads in direct competition for the limited (and dwindling) resources of our Department of Public Works. It does not provide for a dedicated source of revenue for the maintenance of cemetery and church roads. The Ordinance also fails to restrict the level of maintenance that the Parish must provide to the cemeteries and churches. If a cemetery or church board calls the Parish for assistance on a monthly basis, they expect the Parish to do the work requested and cite the Ordinance as justification. The Ordinance mandates the Department of Public Works to pull equipment and staff off of public road maintenance jobs for the maintenance of private cemetery and church roads.
2. The Ordinance states that all cemetery and church roads being adopted into the System had been evaluated and found to meet the requirements of the existing ordinance for addition to the System. As the Director of Public Works stated for the record, that statement is false. Some of the cemetery roads had been evaluated but none of them met the requirements.
3. If you do a search for churches in Natchitoches Parish on yellowpages.com, you’ll find a listing of over 100 churches, a majority of which are located within the City of Natchitoches. Not only does the Ordinance not define what qualifies as a church, it doesn’t exclude those churches located within the boundaries of a municipality. Under this Ordinance, any group can declare themselves a church and require the Parish to maintain its access road regardless of how remote the area the church is located.
4. There are over 190 cemeteries in Natchitoches Parish. You can read about many of them at the website www.la-cemeteries.com. According to the website, 13 of them are located in Natchitoches. Again, the Ordinance doesn’t exclude those cemeteries located within the boundaries of a municipality.
5. The plight of abandoned or poorly maintained cemeteries is not unique to Natchitoches Parish. In 2003, the Town of Arcadia was cited by the Legislative Auditor’s Office for misuse of public funds when it discovered that the Town had been maintaining 3 private cemeteries. The Town sought an Opinion from the Attorney General Office in 2005 seeking guidance on how to legally maintain private cemeteries. In its Opinion 05-0131, the A. G. advised the Town that it must acquire ownership of the cemetery in order to maintain it legally. It could accomplish this through expropriation (the taking of property rights in the exercise of a governing authority’s sovereignty), acquisitive prescription (requires uninterrupted possession for 30 years without title or good faith), or through purchase of the property. Similarly, Winn Parish sought an opinion in 1990 defining the difference between public and private cemeteries with regard to the expenditure of public funds for their maintenance.
5. Grant, LaSalle, Rapides, St. Mary and St. Landry Parish have all created Cemetery Districts. The Districts give these five Parishes the right to acquire, establish, operate and maintain public cemeteries within the Districts. All of the Districts except for Rapides Parish allow for an ad valorem tax to support their District. Rapides Parish relies on donations and grants for the funding of its District. Both the Grant and LaSalle Districts prohibit acquisition by expropriation. And, St. Mary and Rapides Parish both exclude incorporated areas from their Districts.
6. At the meeting, Parish President Rick Nowlin stated that he wasn’t against the Parish’s assistance in maintaining cemetery roads but the Parish must follow the law. Ordinance #06-2014 does not accomplish this. Councilmen Chris Paige and John Salter both stated that some of these roads had been maintained by the Parish for years but there are no records to show that the roads were taken into the system through expropriation or purchase. So, one must assume that the roads were taken into the system by acquisitive prescription which begs the question, what other property has the Parish taken into its system without the landowners knowledge and consent?
Just because something was always done in the past doesn’t mean that we should continue to do it and it certainly doesn’t mean that it was legal. In light of the limited financial resources of our Department of Public Works, all residents of the Parish are encouraged to contact their Parish Councilman and ask them to fix this well-intended but ill-conceived Ordinance.
by J. Q. Collectif