The director of Port Kembla’s community-based Tender Funerals pleaded with Wollongong councillors to find a way to keep the city’s crematorium in public hands.
The organisation’s general manager Jenny Briscoe-Hough said she feared shutting-down the Berkeley cremator and leaving two privately-run operations to service Wollongong would lead to rising costs for funerals and cremations.
However, at Monday night’s council meeting, a majority of councillors rejected this appeal, voting against a motion from the Greens’ Mithra Cox to call for expressions of interest from organisations wishing to operate the public facility.
The council announced in early May that it would stop operating the ageing cremator by mid-year, saying it had become a drain on the public purse since a new crematorium operated by Parsons Funerals opened in February.
Speaking at the council meeting, Ms Briscoe-Hough said she worried services like Tender Funerals, or people unable to pay for private funeral services, may end up travelling to Nowra or Sydney to access public cremations.
Cr Cox said she, as well as Labor MP Paul Scully, had been contacted by “a huge number” of residents concerned over the closure of the crematorium.
“I hope we vote down this motion. I hope it’s dead, buried and cremated.”Cameron Walters
“I was really surprised by the breadth of people who were contacting me, who felt very strongly about it,” Cr Cox said.
She hoped the council would “explore all avenues” before deciding if it would close the crematorium.
But Liberal councillor Cameron Walters said Cr Cox’s motion was “reckless, irresponsible, dangerous and misleading”.
He said privately-run funeral homes had been offended by the suggestion their services would be more costly.
“One of the providers in the area has dropped their fee $180 lower than our council facility,” he said.
“We have a crematorium that is aged, that is out of date, we have been briefed by council staff many times that this crematorium would need significant upgrades and if there’s anyone who would have thought of [running] this, they would have already approached us.”
“I hope we vote down this motion. I hope it’s dead, buried and cremated.”
His colleague Leigh Colacino said residents wanting to use the council’s chapel for their funeral service would still be able to do so when the cremator closes.
“After a service has been held, the recently departed can be respectfully moved to another site for the cremation to occur,” he said.
“So the service can still occur there, but the body can go on to another facility.”
He also said councillors should not “be bagging out funeral directors” who would set their prices according to a competitive market.
Dom Figliomeni said he was “incensed” to hear the not-for-profit sector “denigrating” businesses and would vote against Cr Cox’s motion.
“If there is a business case somebody would like to put forward, an unsolicited offer, there is an opportunity for them to do so,” he said.
“But I do not believe it is up to council to subsidise what will be a commercial operation, regardless of who provides it. If somebody is interested in looking at acquiring the crematorium, I would be the first one to look at it as an unsolicited proposal.”
The council’s general manager David Farmer said he did not believe it would be possible to call for expressions of interest on the cremator in its current state, as it breached a range of work health and safety rules.
“You would need somebody who was willing to completely rebuild a facility on that site,” Mr Farmer said.
Lord mayor Gordon Bradbery was absent from the chamber for the debate, due to his work officiating funerals.