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    Group asks city to maintain cemetery

    The Rose Cemetery Association wants Tarpon Springs to support the private, historically black cemetery for five years. City officials don't commit, but they will consider it.

    By CANDACE RONDEAUX, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 22, 2003


    TARPON SPRINGS -- For as long as anyone can remember, the Rose Cemetery has been in disrepair. But this week city officials said they are considering a request from the owners of the historically black cemetery to help end the decay that has run riot there for years.

    Last week, an attorney for the Rose Cemetery Association sent a letter to City Hall asking officials to enter into a five-year contract to provide maintenance at the privately owned 5-acre plot of land on Jasmine Avenue. On Friday, city officials said they're willing to sit down and talk about the possibility.

    But there is one very big hitch.

    "Using taxpayers' money on private property is kind of a no-no," said Mayor Frank DiDonato, "but we want to sit down and see if we can think of a way to help."

    Rose Cemetery has more than 2,600 spaces for graves, but only about 600 of them were found during a 1999 survey. Funds for irrigating and landscaping the plots have run out, and the cemetery's records fell into disarray as the association's board members came and went over the years.

    Marking all the graves and making basic improvements could cost as much as $20,000 to start, according to association members. Rehabilitating and maintaining the land fully could cost thousands more over the years. Under the agreement proposed by association attorney Herb Elliot, the city would have to shoulder much of the financial burden of marking many graves and maintaining the property without actually owning the land.

    Under the contract proposed in Elliot's March 10 letter to city officials, the Rose Cemetery Association, which has owned and operated the graveyard for nearly a century, would maintain ownership but pay the city a "minimal fee" to help mark long unmarked graves and provide services such as irrigation and landscaping for up to five years.

    City Attorney John Hubbard said the proposal could put the city in a tight spot, legally and financially.

    "Normally, you can't spend public money to improve private property without finding an overwhelmingly good public purpose," Hubbard said. "Even if it was the case where they (the association) conveyed the property to the city it costs a fortune to take care of a cemetery."

    In recent years, several Florida cities have stepped up their involvement in rehabilitating privately owned black cemeteries that were a result of segregation. In October, a rundown black cemetery in Fort Lauderdale was refurbished and rededicated after concerned city officials designated it a municipal cemetery.

    Over the years, the city has donated equipment and staff hours to rehabilitation efforts at Rose Cemetery. But cemetery supporters say they need more help to get the job done. With roughly $750 available in its operating fund, the Rose Cemetery Association is ill-equipped to take on a full-scale rehabilitation alone, said Frank Miller, the association's vice president.

    "It's a monumental job," Miller said. "We just don't have the resources to hire somebody. We'd be grateful for any help we can get."

    Miller hopes the association's recent moves to preserve the historic value of Pinellas County's oldest African-American cemetery will encourage city officials to reach a compromise.

    Last week, the Florida Department of State's Bureau of Historic Preservation placed the cemetery on its registry of heritage sites and has begun to manufacture a plaque explaining the cemetery's history. The designation was won in part because of efforts to commemorate Richard Quarls, an African-American buried at the cemetery whose history of service with the Confederate Army was only recently discovered by association supporters and historians.

    On Friday, city officials cautioned that it was too early to say whether a deal could be reached, but a compromise is not out of the question.

    "It's a tough problem," Hubbard said, "but it's not impossible to overcome."

    -- Candace Rondeaux can be reached at (727) 445-4182 or crondeaux@sptimes.com.

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