Burial burden

MALONE – The Franklin County Board of Legislators may cut how much the county contributes to indigent burial services.

The county spends about $100,000 a year providing burials and services for those whose families cannot afford them. If enacted, a new fee and service schedule would potentially cut that expenditure in half.

In 2012 the county paid for 76 indigent burials. Two of those were reimbursed through the state’s Family Assistance Program. The remaining 74 were covered under the state Safety Net program, meaning the county was reimbursed for 21 percent of the costs, up to $900 each.

The new proposal was agreed upon during a meeting between Commissioner of Social Services Lesley Lyon, county legislators Carl Sherwin and Don Dabiew, Director of Financial Assistance Jannelle Reome and the directors of two Malone funeral homes: Spaulding Funeral Home Director Myke Leonard and Bruso-Desnoyers Funeral Home Director Joe Bruso. Legislators also discussed it at their May 1 meeting.

The plan would reduce the amount the county pays for direct burials without services from $2,175 to $1,850. Those figures include the cost of embalming and a casket. The county’s maximum contribution to the cost of the burial plot, which was previously fully covered, would be $400. The county would also pitch in about $425 for the grave liner.

The plan also lowers the amount the county would pay for cremation, from $2,175 to $1,850 with services and from $1,850 to $1,400 without services. The county would no longer pay for burying cremains, except when the deceased has no family.

“Don and I met with several undertakers, and basically we looked at what our costs are compared to the costs of surrounding counties,” Sherwin said. “It basically provides a more consistent service with less money.”

Sherwin said Franklin County pays significantly more for indigent burial services than St. Lawrence and Essex counties do.

“This comes up routinely,” said Legislator Paul Maroun, R-Tupper Lake. “We have to do something, but my feeling has always been that we don’t have to provide the same level of services that I may want to provide at a funeral for my family member.”

Sherwin agreed that it is important to save taxpayers money, but he also expressed concerns for the deceased.

“We want to treat these folks with dignity,” Sherwin said. “We want to manage it economically without being a financial burden to the burial services around here. We don’t want to put these places out of business.”

County board Chairman Billy Jones suggested having a committee meeting before voting on this service. That committee is tentatively scheduled to meet May 22.

Two funeral home directors in the southern end of the county, Brendan Keough of Fortune-Keough Funeral Home in Saranac Lake and Shawn Stuart of Stuart-Fortune-Keough Funeral Home in Tupper Lake, were unaware of the details of the proposed fee and service schedule until contacted by the Enterprise Thursday.

Keough said he was too busy to attend the last meeting on the schedule, but he was surprised by the proposal.

“The county was going to provide either a direct burial or a direct cremation service, and that was it,” Keough said. “If they wanted anything more than that, the families were going to be responsible for those costs a la carte, so to speak. That’s what was previously discussed, and I didn’t make the last meeting, and now they’ve gone and completely changed it.”

Both directors said the biggest shock in the proposal was the supplement line, which dictates the maximum amount a non-legally responsible family member, like a spouse or the parent of a dependent child, can contribute to an indigent burial service. The new schedule increases that amount from $1,000 to $2,500, which could still leave funeral homes dealing with unpaid balances.

Stuart looked at the last three burials, with services, his funeral home provided, and said the average cost was $6,500.

“There could be a wealthy family member who’d like to help out, and the county is setting limitations on that? That doesn’t make sense to me,” Stuart said. “I understand there need to be restrictions on what we go to the taxpayer for, but does it fall on the burden of the local funeral home? If the family doesn’t pay for it, are we then going to turn to the cemetery and tell them they’re going to have to do a grave opening and not get paid for it, or do we take it upon ourselves to make up the differences in these costs?”

Keough said there are people who need assistance paying for a loved ones funeral, but it is possible for some to take advantage of the county, too. If a non-legally responsible family member who could afford funeral expenses doesn’t want to help with burial costs, taxpayers and the funeral home are left to foot the bill.

“There are genuine, true hardships,” Keough said, “people with their backs against the wall who don’t have the resources to cover the funeral expenses, and that’s what this program was intended for. For those people, it works wonderfully well.”