The headstone battle that the city just can't kill 

August marked one year since Missoula City Cemetery Director Ron Regan convinced his volunteer and elected overseers to spend $18,340 so he could start selling headstones and engraving columbarium walls. The plan, as city councilmember John DiBari concluded at the time, seemed like a "no-brainer," since revenue from those services would offset the initial cost in only four years.

Regan got his plotting machine ($11,785) and flew to a training with a couple of other staff members ($6,555). But a year later, the only death date they'd inscribed was the one on Regan's plan, which had become so controversial and time-consuming that one cemetery board member declared his priority was simply to "lay to rest" the dispute.

The pun wasn't intentional, if the tone of the gravestone fight is any indication. For months, Missoula's private monument vendors have publicly fumed that the city was encroaching on their business, even hiring attorneys to send the city a "cease and desist" letter and threaten legal action.

The cemetery board and Missoula City Council thought they settled the issue Sept. 18, when council voted to scale back Regan's original plan. The cemetery agreed to abandon headstone sales and engraving, but adopted a new requirement that all stones be installed by city staff. The proposal passed after Mayor John Engen broke a 5-5 tie.

But local monument businesses aren't relenting, while the cemetery is left with a machine that can't be used for its intended purpose.

Bob Jordan, owner of Garden City Monument Services, says Regan has been "deceitful" in his pursuit of new services, misleading city council about the project and its effect. Where Regan describes his goal as providing more options and better prices to cemetery customers, Jordan sees a rogue director looking to generate revenue.

Jordan says Regan "slid in" the plotter request when he first asked the city for funding, and it's true that the request received little discussion, including an opening remark from councilmember Jon Wilkins asking what a plotter is.

The cemetery's initial plan was to source monuments from an out-of-state vendor. City staff could then "set," i.e., install the monuments, providing cemetery customers with a "one-stop shopping" experience. Staffers would use the plotter to create stencils for columbarium tiles and inscribe death dates onto pre-made stones. Regan told council that tile inscriptions would generate $1,000 annually, and death date inscriptions on cemetery-sold headstones would yield another $8,000 in new annual revenue.

click to enlarge City cemetery officals say they didn’t think their plan to sell headstones would be controversial. Local dealers say the city was asking for a fight. - PHOTO BY CATHERINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Catherine L. Walters
  • City cemetery officals say they didn’t think their plan to sell headstones would be controversial. Local dealers say the city was asking for a fight.

"When we approved the plotter, we felt that was a fiscally responsible thing to do for cemetery operations," councilmember Bryan von Lossberg says.

Von Lossberg says his view hasn't changed, even though last month's compromise leaves the cemetery without the bulk of its anticipated revenue. Regan maintains that the $18,340 he's spent on the project was worth it because the plotter can help produce signage around the cemetery, in addition to just inscribing columbarium niche walls.

"This thing does more than I'll probably be able to master," he says.

Now the battle turns to who should install headstones. Stone setting has long been a sore spot between Regan and local monument companies, whose work, Regan has claimed, was often deficient. Having joined the cemetery board during the recent dispute, chair Kim Seeberger says she reviewed minutes from every board meeting since 2005 in search of evidence of Regan's claims. The records convinced Seeberger that Regan had a point.

Yet Jordan, with 45 years of experience in the business, questions whether city staff can handle monuments any better. He says setting stones has never been a profit center for his business, and that the city's foray into installation will force him to pass on hundreds of dollars in additional costs to customers.

Regan says that's untrue, but he's reluctant to otherwise respond to critics in the business community.

"I'm not going to throw mud for a story," he says. "Facts are facts. We went through due process."

That process stretched for months, over at least a half-dozen public meetings, by Jordan's count. He's weighing his next steps as city staffers prepare a fee schedule that he and other monument businesses will be subject to. During previous discussions, Jordan says, he offered to list the city's new plotter for sale in an industry magazine in an attempt to recoup the cost. The city wasn't interested.

That's in part because Regan's plan for city-sold headstones has only one foot in the grave. Cemetery staffers are now recording the names and numbers of customers who inquire about purchasing headstones. If they can prove that public demand exists, they say, they might try again.

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