Monday, July 12, 2004

Wesleyan: Nothing done while lawsuit pends

Parties argue as weeds grow

By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

NORTHSIDE - Those with family members buried at Wesleyan Cemetery are finding that the words "can" and "will" have entirely different meanings.

The 24-acre cemetery located off of Colerain Avenue has been at the center of various legal disputes about its upkeep for years.

Most recently, the caretaker, convicted of stealing money from the cemetery's trust, agreed to let city officials maintain the grounds until pending legal issues are resolved.

But after mowing a couple of the acres last month the city stopped, saying the job was too big to handle alone. Only one of the three county commissioners has expressed interest in having the county help out.

Friends of Wesleyan Cemetery also received permission to work in the cemetery, but the volunteer group doesn't have the equipment to tackle the three-foot-high weeds.

"It's a jungle," said Pat Jaeger, vice president of Friends of Wesleyan Cemetery. "Somebody needs to do the decent thing."

The only person with clear responsibility for caring for the cemetery, which dates to 1842, is Trustee Robert Merkle.

But Ohio Attorney General Jim Petro is suing to remove Merkle from the trust. Merkle was released from prison in November after he served 18 months for stealing $93,000 from the trust, which was established to pay for the cemetery's upkeep.

Petro's suit also names Cincinnati and Hamilton County. The city, Petro argues, could have responsibility for the cemetery if its weeds and rodents pose a public nuisance. The county could be responsible because military veterans are buried there.

Hamilton County Common Pleas Judge Steve Martin ruled in May that Cincinnati and county officials could go into the badly overgrown cemetery to care for it while the lawsuit winds its way through the court system.

Martin will hold a hearing today on Cincinnati's request to be removed from the lawsuit.

The city started mowing shortly after Memorial Day but realized getting the cemetery in shape would take most of its $250,000 annual budget that is allotted for mowing neglected properties citywide, said Public Services Director Daryl Brock. That money needs to cover work on the more than 400 properties whose owners have been cited for overgrowth. .

"We went out (to Wesleyan) because we thought a compromise with the county was forthcoming," Brock said. "Obviously, that didn't materialize. ... If I spent all of my $250,000 on that cemetery, I'd have all the other communities in an uproar."

County Commissioner Todd Portune and Cincinnati Councilman David Pepper have tried to work out a deal in which the county and city would share the cost of equipment and use adults on probation for free labor.

But so far, the other members of city council and the commissioners have not lent their support.

"We have a responsibility here," Portune said. "It frosts me that there are people who are so unwilling to do what the law requires, so unwilling to be helpful."

Another troubled cemetery, Hillcrest in Anderson Township, was refurbished last year with $685,000 from the Ohio Army National Guard and private donations.


About 17,000 people are buried at Wesleyan Cemetery, including more than 1,000 military veterans and Richard Allison, the United States' first surgeon general.



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