Exactly what entity is responsible for covering the costs of indigent burial fees is up in the air after a local funeral home recently filed a complaint in the Hillsboro Municipal Court against the city of Hillsboro to recoup fees for cremation services provided for four indigent individuals in 2012 and 2013.
Those individuals were Hillsboro residents, but as Hillsboro lies within Liberty Township, therein lies the crux of the situation.
And there is possibly room for confusion as section 9.15 of the Ohio Revised Code says that the responsibility for the burial expenses incurred for the indigent fall to the township or the municipality, but does not clarify which is responsible.
According to Craig Turner of Turner Funeral Homes, the plaintiff in the complaint filed on Tuesday, filing the complaint “was the last thing in the world we wanted to do.”
Turner said the law requires that people are cared for no matter their financial circumstances. But, he said neither the city nor the township believes themselves to be responsible for the fees and the funeral home is left with the expenses for the services provided.
Even though Turner was reticent to proceed with the complaint, he said it will now be up to a judge to decide who’s responsible for the fees, because he said the issue will likely keep arising with more and more people facing hard times.
“It needs to be established,” Turner said, “so we know where we’re at.”
Highland County Prosecutor Anneka Collins said that the law is “very clear” in defining the municipality as the entity responsible for indigent burial expenses, as supported by the Ohio Revised Code, case law, and state attorney general opinions handed down through the years.
In a document presented to townships by Collins, and crafted from the above sources, it states that in a situation where a municipality lies, even in part, within a township and the deceased was a resident of the municipality, it is the duty of the municipality to assume the expenses of the indigent person’s burial.
But Hillsboro Law Director Fred Beery said that would mean the city gets stuck with a disproportionate amount of expenses.
Beery said Hillsboro is a political subdivision of Liberty Township, and as such, should be financially responsible for only for its proportionate share of expenses.
With Hillsboro having the hospital and nursing home facilities, places where people, indigent or not, are likely to end up when they are ailing, Beery said the city should not be expected to pay the expenses associated with the indigent deaths therein.
Earlier this year, Hillsboro City Council passed legislation on the matter. Beery said the first section of the ordinance says that the city will not assume the costs of indigent burial. But he said the second section says that the city, if court ordered, will allow up to $500 toward indigent costs. The section also provides the authority to the law director and auditor to carry out the matter without council approval.
Beery said the legislation was a way to protect the rights of Hillsboro residents and limit the liability to the city.
This matter has been a “hot potato” issue for a few years, Beery said, adding that he has advised villages for years on the topic since the state ceased it’s contribution to indigent burial expenses.
He said the matter has caused a “constant stream of concern,” and now the issue is to a point where it may be litigated. But he said he’s still open to seeking resolution. An opinion issued in 1921 by then-Ohio Attorney General John G. Price says, “Where an indigent person is a legal resident of the county, the expenses of the burial of such person should be paid by the township in which he had legal residence at the time of his death; but if such person was also a legal resident of a municipal corporation, the expenses of the burial should be paid by the municipal corporation and not by the township wherein such corporation is situate.”
In an article written on the matter in July by T. Scott Gilligan, general counsel for the Ohio Funeral Directors Association, he calls the ORC 9.15 an “outdated statute,” and discusses the confusion that has arisen from the language.
In a section titled “Municipalities Surrounded by a Township,” he wrote: “In Ohio, there are a number of municipalities that are completely surrounded by a township. This peculiarity has led to disputes over the responsibility to cover the costs of the disposition of an indigent that dies in a municipality that is surrounded by a township. In other words, is the municipality or the township responsible for paying for the disposition?”
Gilligan goes on to write that since Price’s opinion in 1921, the state attorney general “has consistently adopted the position that the municipality would be responsible for the cost of the disposition of an indigent person that dies in the municipality that is surrounded by a township.”
So now, the matter of indigent burial costs within Hillsboro may likely be up to a judge to decide.
“We’re not at odds with anyone,” Turner said, “but we just need to know who’s responsible.”