A town council in Western Australia’s remote north-west is facing a backlash after raising its cost of burial by thousands of dollars.
- Burial fees at the town’s only cemetery have drawn condemnation from the community and industry figures
- The council has moved to a “user pays” system, rather than depending on rates to fund the cemetery’s operation
- Of the 20 funerals on average each year in Port Hedland, there have been just two since the increased costs came in
The Town of Port Hedland has increased its fees from $1,100 to $3,500 for a weekday burial, and to more than $5,000 on weekends.
The new burial costs at the South Hedland Cemetery have been branded as “ridiculous” by one funeral industry worker, and Hedland community members have expressed outrage on social media.
But more importantly for the town — where there were about 20 funerals on average each year in Port Hedland, there has been just two since the increased costs came in.
South Hedland Cemetery is the only local cemetery that allows new reservations and burials.
Mayor Camilo Blanco said the fee hike was partly due to the council’s move to a “user pays” system, rather than depending on council rates to fund the cemetery’s operation.
But he also blamed the increase on the impact of abuse of council workers at funerals.
“Our guys were copping a lot of abuse,” Mr Blanco said.
“Obviously people are upset at that time, but the end result is that our workers were being abused.”
Council staff were now required to leave a funeral site and return after the service was finished so they did not face vitriol, the Mayor said.
“What we’ve had to do is we dig and prep the grave, and then they [the council workers] have to go away and stay away until everyone is gone, and then they come back and finish it,” he said.
“If we have to change the way we do our job, obviously that increases the cost associated with that service.”
‘Not just about digging a hole’
Adrian Barrett from the Australian Funeral Directors Association has expressed surprised at the fee hike, calling the costs for a Saturday burial “ridiculous”.
He called on the State Government to ensure consistency of fees across the state, and a maximum yearly price increase.
“There’s really no consistency across the state because all the cemeteries are run by the local government authority in the area, and basically the local government minister approves them,” he said.
“I’ve never heard of them not just going through.
“Funerals are expensive, there is no doubt about it. But when a big part of that is the cemetery fees, and when they have such a huge increase in one year, it really does become almost unaffordable for people to bury their loved ones.”
The town’s mayor said “funerals are not just about digging a hole”.
“Our costs are controlled by regulation, how many people we need, penalty payments,” Mr Blanco said.
“The increase in the cemetery fees and charges is due to a council decision in 2018 … and clearly tough decisions need to be made and the right balance between the cost falling on ratepayers or on the people that actually use the service.
“You can’t just bury someone without a lot of paperwork, a lot of sign-off and a lot of record keeping. It continues after the burial.”
Mr Blanco said there was extensive community consultation and dismissed concerns Hedland residents may not have fully understood the impact a user pays model would have on burials costs.
“I don’t think that’s the case,” he said.
“Our public consultation period for the strategic community plan was long, and it also engaged 35 per cent of the population.”
But Port Hedland Ratepayers Association president Arnold Carter expressed concern about the level of community engagement.
“I’d like to know who this was communicated to,” he said.
“I got the surprise of my life when I first saw the budget come out with that increase.
“There was certainly no discussion about that and I still don’t know why it was such an increase.”
Mr Blanco said there were grants available from the State Government and other organisations for burial services in cases of financial hardship.
“I understand it’s a sensitive subject, but at the end of the day someone has to pay, and its either the ratepayers or the people who use the services — whichever services it might be,” Mr Blanco said.
“We get severely criticised by everyone if we don’t manage the finances properly in the town and the people have said we want a user pays system, and I’m afraid that’s the model we are [now] running on.”
The Port Hedland council is not immune to controversy, with the WA Government currently considering whether or not it should be dismissed after a mentor who stepped in to turn the council around made the recommendation, citing an alleged lack of trust and respect among councillors.
Topics: death, consumer-protection, community-and-society, local-government, port-hedland-6721, south-hedland-6722, wa
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