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Crews help maintain landscaping and clean headstones under new contract with cemetery district

COURTESY PHOTO: COLUMBIA COUNTY - Work crew volunteer Ross Clark cuts grass beyond a gravestone for a woman who died in 1919.For years, Columbia County has managed work crews made up of residents who were ordered to participate as part of criminal sentences or to pay off fees and fines.

Those crews have maintained landscaping for various government agencies, but they have recently added in a more somber landscape — one that leaders hope will help crew members reflect on their own choice.

The work crew has added cemeteries around Rainier to its work locations.

Ross Clark, who joined the work crew to pay off fees, said the cemetery was far different than the other places the work crew goes.

"We usually clean up overgrown areas like at the Scappoose Airport or McCormick Park. This is really different. It's kind of sad. Their names are overgrown. If I had a relative here, I wouldn't even be able to find their gravestone the way it is now," Clark said in a statement through the county government.

"Someone will appreciate this. If I were buried here, I'd appreciate not being buried and forgotten," Clark continued.COURTESY PHOTO: COLUMBIA COUNTY - Work Crew Supervisor Jeremy Kaufman stands beside a work crew van at Neer City Cemetery.

Work crew supervisor Jeremy Kaufman said that much of the work in the cemetery requires wearing headphones to block out noise.

"So, you can't hear or see much, and they're reading the headstones," Kaufman said. "They're noticing families, they're noticing a lot of these are overgrown and no one is taking care of them — someone the other day mentioned seeing a headstone of someone that was three years old and they asked to take a minute and step aside."

In the county's press release, Kaufman described the cemetery work as a "reminder" that life happens fast.

"These are all people who have gotten into some kind of trouble in Columbia County," Kaufman said of the offenders serving their sentences on county work crews. "And when you're at a hard point in your life, it's easy to get off-track. Things happen quick in life, and this is kind of a reminder of that."

According to David Brooke, community service coordinator for the county's parole and probation department, the Rainier Cemetery District's board of directors reached out because the cemeteries were in need of help. The district's usual landscaper was retiring, leaving the board searching for another way to maintain 13 cemeteries.

Many of the gravestones were overgrown, Kaufman said. There was trash littering the cemeteries, invasive blackberry bushes, and downed tree limbs.

The crew has contracts to maintain properties for various agencies, including St. Helens and the Port of Columbia County.

Initially, the work crew did the cemetery work on a volunteer basis, but with the landscaper retiring, Kaufman reached out to see if the work crew could take on that job.

The new contract work began in April.

"We started at the top of Rainier Hill and just slowly worked our way through the rest of the cemeteries of Columbia County," Kaufman said, "just cleaning them up and respecting the dead."

The district is still looking for a part-time maintenance person, according to its website. The work crew will do trimming around headstones and markers at five of the busiest locations in the district, but that still leaves work to be done.COURTESY PHOTO: COLUMBIA COUNTY - A work crew member clears debris from around gravestones.

"Please understand that there are more than 13,000 graves to maintain in the District which spans a large part of Columbia County," the website stated. "To put that in perspective: It takes one person around 45 hours just to mow all the cemeteries (if that one person trims around each headstone that number goes up to 80 hours)," without including time to get to each location and set up equipment.

The Rainier Cemetery District has asked voters to approve property taxes to fund cemetery maintenance multiple times in recent years. The measures were voted down by voters each time, until the May 2021 measure. The district estimated the tax will bring in roughly $81,000 next year.

The district's budget for the current fiscal year totals roughly $166,000.

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