NEW PORT RICHEY — Roberta Deal said she would never end her crusade to make sure the infant section of the county-owned Tucker Cemetery was cleared of dead leaves, weeds and litter.
"I will not stop," the 41-year-old Clearwater resident said last month after a recent visit to her daughter's final resting place, where she discovered about 20 unkempt graves. "These babies deserve better."
On Tuesday, she took that fight to the county bosses. She told them the overgrowth was so bad that she couldn't get to the grave of Christina Gerene Lorch, her stillborn daughter who was buried in the east Pasco cemetery 22 years ago. Deal, then a 19-year-old Pasco resident, lacked the financial means to buy a commercial cemetery plot.
After listening to her and local historian Jeff Cannon, county commissioners came up with what they thought was a simple solution: Let county jail inmates maintain it.
"I think the Sheriff's Office would probably be able to help us out," said Commissioner Pat Mulieri.
Trouble is, the Sheriff's Office no longer has a crew available for such projects.
"From what I have been able to gather from the Trusty Unit, the 'program' referenced by Commissioner Mulieri is not a program," sheriff's spokesman Doug Tobin told the Times. "It was part of an outdoor trusty work crew. However, that work crew has not done that type of activity for more than a year after an independent contract to help fund it was not renewed by an outside vendor."
Tobin said the contract was through the Southwest Florida Water Management District and paid the salary of a deputy to supervise the work crew.
Deal said Tuesday she doesn't care who cleans it, as long as it's taken care of soon.
"I'll give them until the end of the holidays and if January comes and nothing's been done, I'll be back," she said. "I will not stop. It's not right. These are people buried here. The county owns this, and the county should clean it up. My daughter deserves a place that is restful and peaceful and this is not restful or peaceful."
Cannon, who runs a group dedicated to preserving cemeteries, told commissioners the cemetery needs attention.
"There definitely needs to be something done to get the situation under control," he said. "The responsibility falls with the county on getting this cleaned up."
The cemetery, which sits off U.S. 98 near the small community of Richland, is one of two publicly owned burial grounds. The other is the West Elfers cemetery. Originally owned by a pioneer citrus family, Tucker Cemetery was deeded to the county in 1965. The back section includes the Tucker family, while the front is set aside for indigent burials.
Suzanne Salichs, the assistant county administrator overseeing public services, said the parks department simply has a contract to mow the property. The concern, she said, is clearing weeds and debris.
David Edwards, the county's real estate manager, said last month he hadn't received any complaints about Tucker Cemetery. He said the parks department was responsible for maintaining the site, but budget cuts during the past few years forced it to delegate duties to a subcontractor. He said the file showed it had been mowed about two weeks before Deal visited the site.