Ozark Memorial Park Cemetery has found itself in deep financial problems that have some Joplin residents concerned.
The historic Joplin cemetery is scheduled to be sold for back taxes by Jasper County later this month. The owner also is behind on sales and withholding taxes owed to the state of Missouri and the cemetery is listed as being on probation with a state oversight board because its endowed-care trust fund — set aside to maintain the property — is short on money, too.
All this has the families of deceased loved ones and those who have purchased grave sites in the cemetery worried.
Randy Spiva, of Joplin, is among those who are troubled by news of the cemetery’s financial health.
He alleges Ozark Memorial Park Cemetery has been slow delivering promised services. Spiva said he and other family members still are waiting for the cemetery to set a headstone purchased in late May to mark the grave of his father.
“My family has five plots in this area,” he said, gesturing toward the hillside where his father’s grave is awaiting a marker. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Catherine Chickering said her family waited until June for the cemetery to set a headstone for her mother, Helen Chickering, that was ordered in January.
“They kept putting us off; I finally got our money back and ordered it myself. It took two weeks,” she said.
The 84-year-old cemetery at the northeast corner of St. Louis Avenue and Langston Hughes Broadway is scheduled to go on the auction block Monday, Aug. 23, in Carthage, if owners do not pay taxes that have been owed for the past two years.
The tax sale list was announced by the county July 22.
The owners of the cemetery owe the county more than $28,000 over the past two years, according to Steve Holt, county collector.
Attempts to reach Greg Crocker, cemetery owner, were unsuccessful last week, but at one point Crocker did leave a message with the Globe’s voice mail stating that the county taxes will be paid before the deadline.
The cemetery, which is the largest in Joplin, has been run by the Crocker family since 1928. It was founded by George W. Crocker, great-grandfather of the current owner.
“Arrangements are completed to take care of the issue prior to the deadline. Everything is going to be fine,” Crocker said in the message he left with the Globe.
However, several attempts to reach him last week with other questions about the care of those buried there and those who purchased grave sites there were unsuccessful. Crocker also did not address other concerns, such as how he was going to make the county payment with other judgments pending against him.
Crocker is on probation with the state of Missouri for failing to pay about $250,000 in sales taxes and withholding taxes, according to court records dating to a 2005 charge.
A settlement was ultimately reached with the state specifying payment arrangements, but the state subsequently filed to revoke Crocker’s probation citing failure to make payments on the back debt. An Aug. 13 hearing was set, then canceled last week after payments were made, according to Dean Dankelson, Jasper County prosecutor.
“He’s caught up for now, on that case,” Dankelson said. “He does have a bad-check case with us that will go to court later this month.”
That case originated with Holt, the collector said, after checks for county tax payments did not clear the bank. While Crocker said in his voice mail that the county will get payments to cover the outstanding taxes, he did not reference the bad-check charges.
Records also show there are other financial demands.
In January, the cemetery was placed on probation by the Missouri Office of Endowed Care Cemeteries, a regulatory agency that oversees cemeteries with perpetual care funds.
According to a settlement order reached by the state and the cemetery, owners are required by Jan. 13, 2011, to pay $33,447 into the cemetery’s endowed care trust fund.
The amount represents $41,576 that should have been paid into the cemetery’s trust account in 2004, 2005 and 2006, minus $8,129 that should have been distributed to the cemetery operator (Crocker) during that same period.
The audit done by the state agency cited “substantial sales” in two of the three years for which no payments were made into the account.
Missouri regulates endowed care cemeteries to ensure that the owners set aside from proceeds the funds that will go to the cemetery’s continuous operation.
The settlement order quoted language that was on Ozark Memorial Park Cemetery’s website: “A perpetual care fund was established in our early days. Fifteen percent of all interment rights sales are put into an irrevocable trust fund. This fund cannot be depleted but rather the interest from the fund is used to maintain the park. This guarantees that the cemetery will always get the care and attention it deserves.”
The money obligated for the endowed care account is in addition to $4,697 that Crocker must pay each month to cover the debt to Missouri that originally stood at $274,092 after he pleaded guilty, in March 2009, to a state charge of failing to file a sales tax return and failing to pay withholding taxes.
Catherine Chickering said having to continually check on her mother’s headstone made the loss more difficult for her family.
“I never got answers,” she said. “It’s a fourth-generation business; I don’t think this is how it should be run.”
Ozark Memorial Park Cemetery is the final resting place for Frank Lee Hood, U.S. congressman from 1933 to 1935, and major league baseball players Ferrell J. “Andy” Anderson and Charles “Gabby” Street.