Los Angeles County officials have frozen the bank account of Wilmington Cemetery because of an unexplained deficit in the account, leaving the 130-year-old graveyard that once was the resting place of the community's founder without any money to pay its three employees.
The county, which acts as the treasurer and bank for the publicly operated cemetery, has not paid the employees for three weeks because the graveyard's account is $21,428 overdrawn, according to Clifford Mansfield, chief of the county's accounting division.
The cemetery, which its operators say is the oldest active graveyard in the county, is surrounded by shipping containers, auto parts yards and some homes in industrial east Wilmington. It is run by a four-member board of trustees and is funded through the sale of plots as well as taxes collected by the Wilmington Cemetery District, an assessment district established in the late 1950s to pay for the 10-acre facility's upkeep.
Board President Dade Albright could not explain the deficit this week, saying Cal Thomas, a board member who is also the district's accountant, handles all financial matters. Efforts to reach Thomas were unsuccessful. Albright said Thomas was out of town and would not be available until next week.
David Baker, the cemetery's manager, said Albright gave him and the cemetery's two groundskeepers cash advances on their paychecks on Tuesday after they complained that they have been unable to pay bills.
"We haven't been able to pay our June rent," Baker said. "One of the employees has already gotten an eviction notice."
The cemetery enjoyed its glory days about a century ago, according to local historians. Phineas Banning, who founded Wilmington and began developing what is now Los Angeles Harbor, was buried there in 1885. His mansion, now a museum, is located several blocks away.
Banning's remains were later moved by his second wife to Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles, but his first wife, Rebecca, and five of his children remain buried at Wilmington Cemetery.
The privately owned cemetery was neglected for years and became overgrown with weeds and tall grass. In 1958, Wilmington residents voted to create the assessment district, and five years later, the graveyard was rededicated as a publicly operated cemetery.
In recent weeks, some residents have complained that the cemetery, located in the 600 block of East O Street, has not been adequately maintained. Los Angeles Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, who represents Wilmington, has received a letter and several phone calls from residents concerned about weeds, high grass and litter, a Flores' aide said.
Pat Briese, a cemetery trustee, said the complaints are unwarranted. "It used to be in real bad shape, but it looks real good now compared to even 10 years ago," he said.