San Benito considers boosting cemetery prices

San Benito officials are considering increasing plot prices at Memorial Park Cemetery after low prices have led out-of-town residents to buy plots whose numbers are limited.

SAN BENITO — Soon, many residents here might feel harder-pressed to bury their loved ones in the cemetery which marks the resting place of the legendary Freddy Fender.

At City Hall, officials are apparently considering boosting prices by about $150 at Memorial Park as more out-of-town residents continue to buy up plots at one of the area’s lowest-cost cemeteries.

Now, commissioners are calling for a workshop to consider setting prices to allow low-income residents to buy a thinning number of plots.

“Some are not too happy,” City Commissioner Rick Guerra said after talking with residents about the proposed price hikes.

“San Benito has lower prices than anyone,” he said. “I understand we need to be a little bit competitive. Another thing is, 35 to 45 percent of the population are elders, retired, maybe lower-income. Raising prices like this, some may not be able to afford it.”

Commissioner Tony Gonzales said he’ll fight the push to boost prices that might stop poor residents from burying their loved ones.

“I’m against it,” he said. “People here in San Benito are on fixed incomes.”

In 2011, the city opened Memorial Park, featuring a monument looming over Fender’s grave site.

As part of the project, officials used $250,000 in economic development money to build up the cemetery, planning to draw tourists to the Grammy-Award-winning singer’s grave.

Across 17 acres, officials planned Memorial Park’s first phase to include 750 plots.

Low-priced plots selling fast

Now, average plots are selling for $2,000 while area cemeteries’ prices run at about $3,500.

“We did start looking at these pricings,” City Manager Manuel De La Rosa told commissioners during a Nov. 5 meeting. “We’re low.”

In the area, grave diggers’ prices are up about $100, he said.

“We’re now having to subsidize the burial,” De La Rosa said.

Lower prices are driving out-of-town residents to buy plots here, he said.

“We’re seeing more and more burials that are not San Benito folks or from San Benito,” De La Rosa said. “It’s price. We are selling plots and people are getting buried who are not originally from San Benito and don’t have connections. But because the pricing is good, you’re going to go through our plots faster.”

Apparently, plots have sold fast.

“Right now, we’re luring our families somewhere else because there’s no more plots,” Albert Vega, director of the Thomae-Garza Funeral Home, told commissioners during the meeting. “We’ve been out for the past few months. Families want to be close to their loved ones.”

While De La Rosa said plots remain available, their numbers are apparently thinning.

“The current plots we had, we ran out at Memorial Park cemetery,” De La Rosa said. “We have not re-plotted a lot of the plots.”

Meanwhile, officials can’t stop out-of-town residents from buying the plots.

“I had a question — well, can we restrict it? No — it’s a public cemetery,” De La Rosa told commissioners. “You can’t restrict who gets buried. But you can try to be more competitive in pricing.”

Setting prices

Now, commissioners are considering setting prices to allow low-income residents to afford to buy plots.

“I hate to raise the prices very high because we have a lot of people who don’t have the money to get buried,” Mayor Ben Gomez said. “It’s a time of mourning and stuff and people are going through a hard time. But we do need to set some regulations and prices.”

Commissioner Carol Lynn Sanchez asked staff to review other cities’ programs aimed at helping poor residents fund burials.

“If that’s something we can help them with, I would like to,” Sanchez said, adding the Thomae-Garza Funeral Home helped her bury her son. “It’s probably the worst time of their life.”

fdelvalle@valleystar.com