Hall County supervisors gave unanimous approval Tuesday to an increase in the amount the county pays to funeral directors to perform indigent funerals — and simultaneously decided to cut indigent funeral expenses by performing only cremations and no longer providing burial services.

The county had been paying $1,470 for indigent funerals, but actual costs for a traditional service exceed $4,200. That left funeral directors subsidizing the cost.

“They shouldn’t have to lose money to provide a service,” said Supervisor Gary Quandt.

Quandt and Supervisors Pam Lancaster and Jane Richardson served on an ad hoc committee to re-evaluate the $1,470 rate, which was established in 1986. They met with local funeral directors, who agreed to a $1,750 reimbursement. For that fee, funeral directors will transport the body to the funeral home, to the crematory, back to the funeral home and will provide a service if the family desires one.

The cremains will then be presented to the family as no burial service will be provided.

Supervisor Doug Lanfear said his wife previously attended a traditional funeral for an indigent individual and it appeared “cheap.” He felt cremation would be classier, but he wondered what would happen if there were no family members to claim the cremains.

All Faiths Funeral Home owner Dan Naranjo said Nebraska law gives funeral directors the authority to scatter ashes or dispose of unclaimed cremains in a dignified manner.

Lancaster said if an indigent’s body must be preserved for a legal case, the county’s legal line items will pay for those preparations. Also, if there is a religious objection to cremation, other arrangements can be made and paid for by someone other than the county.

“If a family or individual’s family has the government care for the indigent person, then we feel that cremation is appropriate ... because it’s less expensive than a traditional service,” Lancaster said. “If someone’s religious beliefs do not allow that, they do have other options and their options would be their churches or their friends or their relatives and they can provide that.

“We don’t prevent anyone from going their own direction,” she said. “The issue is, if this is left to the government ... then it will be cremation.”

Lancaster said she knows this is a sensitive issue and something to be discussed with great respect, but “it is what it is” as to what taxpayers can be expected to provide.

Apfel Funeral Home owner Derek Apfel, whose uncle and father negotiated the indigent funeral rates 29 years ago, said cremation is becoming a much more acceptable practice by religious denominations and society as a whole.

“Back in 1986, the cremation rate was well under 10 percent — it was very rare that anybody was cremated,” Apfel said. “Now the Nebraska cremation rate is anywhere between 37 and 43 percent ... and they expect that to be over 50 percent in the next 10 to 15 years.”

Apfel and Naranjo said local funeral homes are each handling an indigent funeral at least once a month and often more frequently.

“It’s increasing more and more with the economic downturn, we have more and more families that just don’t have the means,” Naranjo said. “It’s a privilege to serve those with means, but it’s also a privilege to serve those without means. But it’s nice to have the support of the county to help with that process.”

Naranjo said the rate increase will help funeral homes have the staff available to minister to those families in need.

“The care that we give the family is not going to change — we take care of everybody,” Apfel said. “It’s just a nice gesture by the county.”

The new policy and rate will go into affect July 1.

For the record

In other action Tuesday, the county board:

— Directed a letter be sent to Werner Construction for a public hearing on possible violations of its conditional use permit to operate a sand and gravel operation on Guenther Road near Engleman Road. It appears that Werner has been grinding asphalt at the plant, but that is prohibited.

— Heard from Hall County Attorney Jack Zitterkopf that the county cannot assume the cost of health benefits for elected officials. The county had considered the action as an added benefit for elected officials until wages can be raised during the next four-year election cycle. Zitterkopf said because the county’s insurance program is self-funded, tax code prevents the county from covering the health costs of some county employees and not others because it could be deemed discriminatory.

— Opened bids from Nebraska Machinery and Murphy Tractor for the county’s possible purchase of six motor graders. Hall County Public Works Director Casey Sherlock will evaluate the rates and report back to the county board in two to four weeks.

— Heard that a public hearing on the conditional use permit for a feedlot in northern Hall County had been canceled by Zitterkopf because the feedlot has other compliance issues to address with the state before being considered for a county permit.

— Authorized the Hall County Sheriff’s Department to sell cancer fundraising wristbands at the Law Enforcement Center for six months, with proceeds to go to an ailing deputy. The approval was needed because the sales conflict with the county’s anti-solicitation policy.

— Heard an update on the Plaza Building at 207 N. Pine and renovation on the Hall County Office Building at 117 E. First St. Hall County Facilities Director Loren “Doone” Humphrey recommended that the county not hire custodial services for the new Plaza Building, which is being used by Nebraska State Probation, because probation staff are dusting and vacuuming their own offices and emptying their own trash cans. County buildings and grounds staff are cleaning bathrooms at the Plaza Building two to three times a week, he said. Humphrey also recommended the county try to get a lower rate for custodial services at the Hall County Courthouse because contractors who begin work on renovations there in August will be required to have the courthouse cleaned after overnight construction. Hall County Attorney Jack Zitterkopf questioned whether contractors on the courthouse would be cleaning bathrooms and emptying trash cans. Humphrey said they would. Following the meeting, District 9 Probation Chief Connie Hultine told The Independent that because her staff didn’t have to provide their own custodial services previously, there has been some grumbling, but it’s something she thinks can be worked through. She has also assigned some of her probation staff to pick up in Plaza Building restrooms after drug testing because as many as 60 to 80 adults may come through at that time.

Drug testing questions were also raised by the county board due to reports that adults and juveniles were both testing at the same time at the Hall County Office Building. Hultine told The Independent that is untrue — that adults test at the Plaza Building between 6 and 9 a.m. and that juveniles test at the Hall County Office Building between 3 and 6 p.m. Drug testing technicians have office space at both locations, she said.

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