FARMINGDALE — Despite having her stipend cut at town meeting this year, Jo-Ann Choate has continued to perform her former cemetery sexton duties on a volunteer basis.

The funding for the position’s stipend was cut by voters this summer, but town officials are considering the creation of a “cemetery administrator” position until the end of the fiscal year, believing that the job is necessary and her volunteer work is creating an insurance liability.

Choate, 60, has filled the role of sexton for more than a year, tasked with planning maintenance of the town’s cemeteries, assisting families in buying plots and charting who is buried in them. There are three cemeteries in Farmingdale: Carter Cemetery on Litchfield Road, Chapman Cemetery on Northern Avenue, and Maine Avenue Cemetery.

Her duties have not changed much since she became a volunteer, Choate said, though she is performing less manual labor now because of liability to the town. In her youth, her family took care of cemeteries in her hometown.

“The cemetery means a lot to the folks that are here,” Choate said. “I was brought up to respect the folks in the cemetery.”

A part-time consultant for a company in Washington, D.C., she said she took the job because she had enough time and wanted to teach her two granddaughters, who would attend jobs with her, to “have a respect for cemeteries and the people there.”

“When I think of a cemetery,” Choate said, “I think of a nice, beautiful-looking cemetery without a bunch of broken stones all over the place.”

She recently oversaw the repair of a number of headstones in the town’s cemeteries, a $5,635 job that Town Clerk Rose Webster said would be funded by pulling carry-forward funds from last fiscal year.

The stipend Choate was paid last fiscal year was $2,200. For the current fiscal year, she and the selectmen recommended a $4,300 stipend because the workload merited a raise.

“(The job) was huge, … bigger than I had planned,” she said. “I thought I was just going to oversee who goes where.”

Residents voted at June’s Town Meeting to end the stipend, effectively eliminating the position all together. Withdrawing the stipend, the town approved $18,000 for maintaining the cemeteries.

“The residents decided we didn’t need a sexton anymore, which is not the case,” the selectmen’s Chairman Jim Grant said.

Choate, however, was undeterred.

While the town scrambles to put together a job description for a position over seeing the administration of the cemeteries, she is overseeing maintenance work planned while she formally filled the role.

“We’ve got work to be done and I’d volunteer until they (found a solution),” she said.

Choate also is working on writing software for use at the Town Office to streamline cemetery administration. All records are hand-written, and this program would give the system redundancy. Choate said she had no professional experience in software design, but she undertook that project to help make the job easier for the next administrator.

“I’ve dabbled enough in (software design) to get myself in trouble,” she said with a laugh. “If (the system) needs to be fixed, it needs to be fixed.”

Choate now is collecting data from the cemeteries to plot more accurately who is buried where on each property. She said recording plots takes a lot of time and records vary from generations of sextons, but it’s simply part of her duties.

“It’s been a challenge, but that’s OK. It’s part of the process,” Choate said.

NEW POSITION

Choate delivered an update of the stone repair job and upcoming fencing repairs to selectmen Sept. 19, which prompted conversation about a proposed new job to handle the administrative tasks of the sexton. Grant said Wednesday that the town is preparing a job description for that position to finish out the fiscal year.

The first public mention of that position was at the July 11 selectmen’s meeting, according to meeting minutes. The board decided July 25 to route all cemetery-related calls to Grant, but Choate said on Sept. 19 that she still receives calls about cemetery business. Choate is listed as the town sexton on the town’s website.

Grant said Wednesday that the request for proposal for an administrator has been held up by how much liability insurance the town would require a candidate to have. He said the town settled on $300,000.

He added that the position probably would be funded through town contingency funds in an amount “significantly lower than” $5,000. That funding does not require a town meeting.

Resident Jeff Ellis said during the Sept. 19 meeting the town could be sued if Choate were injured while working the cemetery with the town’s knowledge. Grant said that the town is preparing a waiver for Choate to sign before resuming work that could cause injury.

“I spoke to (The Maine Municipal Association) about insurance and volunteers, and they recommended that we have her sign a nonliability waiver,” he said. “I’m sure next Wednesday, if (Choate) wishes to continue volunteering, that she will have to sign.”

Grant said Thursday that there is no “legal document in place” to waive liability to the town if Choate got injured patrolling the cemeteries. He said the town has not told Choate explicitly to stop working in the meantime, as there is very little risk because her job is mostly administrative.

“I think volunteers are covered on our insurance somewhere,” he said. “If it was one of our volunteers on a committee, I wouldn’t worry about where the money was coming from as long as they were taken care of.”

Cemetery rules, found on the town’s website, say “the Town disclaims responsibility for property damage or any injury sustained by any person violating” the rules. Contractors for work commissioned by Farmingale are contractually required to have liability insurance.

Choate, who said she would never sue the town if she were injured, said she probably will sign the waiver to continue the work. She also said she would be “very interested” in the proposed administrative position.

Sam Shepherd — 621-5666

[email protected]

Twitter: @SamShepME

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