No easy answer for flower dilemma

Ken Kellar

Following concerns about local businesses, and backlash from the public, Fort Frances Town Council is taking another look at what to do with thousands of flowers.
Ahead of last week’s council meeting, the Operations and Facilities Executive Committee prepared a proposal for an operational plan for various departments in the town through to July 1 due to the impact that COVID-19 related measures have had on how the town can proceed with what needs to be done this summer.
As part of the report submitted to council, it was suggested that the municipality forego the planting of flowers in town, including those that would ordinarily go in the many plots at both municipal graveyards. According to the recommendations made by the report, the town would postpone hiring or recalling any summer student labourers, a significant source of the town’s seasonal labour. This reduction in the operational staffing level, in addition to the necessary requirements for physical distancing, would make it unfeasible to plant the flowers. Instead, the recommendation was to be that the flowers be distributed to those who purchased Perpetual Care Agreements for loved ones’ graves, and the remainder given to the general public free of charge.
As details of this report were released to the public on Monday morning and afternoon, significant pushback to the idea was seen on social media. Fort Frances Mayor June Caul addressed the concerns she had heard, as well as what local businesses had expressed to her.
“I think we need to look at this a little bit more closely and possibly make some changes,” Mayor Caul said.
“I had conversation with one of our local greenhouse operators… and I’m sure she has the same concerns. By the town giving away flowers to people to plant anywhere in town… if we give those flowers away we are hurting our business people.”
Mayor Caul said that the concern from a local greenhouse operator was that if the public were to receive flowers from the town free of charge, that would potentially turn away a large number of customers who would otherwise purchase their flowers from one of the area greenhouses.
Councillors Andrew Hallikas, Doug Judson, and Wendy Brunetta also expressed some concerns with aspects of the proposed operational plan when it came to the flowers and what could be done with them, and asked about the potential use of volunteers to plant the flowers, the logistics of distributing the flowers to interested individuals, as well as a request for clarification as to how the flowers are procured each year.
Operations and Facilities manager Travis Rob was on the call for Monday’s meeting, and noted that there is much more at work in this situation than the public might intitially be aware of.
Off the bat, Rob explained that the town is in a difficult position regarding pulling in volunteers to do work for the town.
“We talked about this at the administration table,” Rob said.
“The concern that I have with that is we do have a union workforce, and the union workforce has typically been what plants the flowers, so I don’t want to get into any sort of collective bargaining issues with having a bunch of volunteers going into the cemetery to plant flowers.”
Another thing that needs to be taken into account, Rob said, is that the job is much larger than just having the flowers planted.
“There’s ongoing care that has to happen with these flowers to make them look as good as they do in our cemeteries year over year,” he explained.
“It’s not just a matter of putting the flowers in the ground and walking away. There is continual weeding and cultivating and watering that happens throughout the entire year, the entire summer, to keep these flowers looking as vibrant as they do. The issue that we have with planting the flowers goes beyond planting and it goes right through the full year of care. Yes… there may be a cache of volunteers out there that are interested in planting the flowers in the cemetery, but it’s that care then from the time that they’re planted until the fall time when we remove them.”
Rob also pointed out that the removal of the flowers in the fall is just as large a project as planting them in the spring.
Rob then moved on to describing how he had been considering distributing the flowers to the public in the event that council had agreed with the plan to give the flowers away.
“We do have a greenhouse that we do store the flowers in to some extent after we start planting them at the Fort Frances Cemetery,” he said.
“I would not ask people to go to our supplier and pick the flowers up, we would be handling it internally and we would be handling it out of our own greenhouse. My thoughts on it are to utilize a couple of our staff to set up some sort of curbside pickup where someone can just come and pick up their flowers, as well a limit on the number of flowers that someone is allowed.”
However, even with the framework of a plan in place for distribution, and contact being kept to a minimum, Councillor Halikas said he was still concerned about taking away business from local greenhouses by giving the flowers away, and recommended the report be sent back to committee for review.
At the request of Counc. Judson, Rob also explained how some of the underlying mechanisms of the graveyards – including the flowers and operations during COVID-19 – work.
“On Councillor Judson’s comment on the funding model for our cemetery flowers, we purchase flowers for two different types of planting,” Rob explained.
“One is perpetual care, where a family pays up front for care of the flowers. . . basically it would be forever. For those family members then, every year we dress up the beds, we plant the flowers, we take care of the flowers, in fall we pull the flowers, edge the bed and we do that every single year. So that is a portion of the flowers we purchase for the cemeteries. There is a portion of flowers we purchase for the cemetery for what is called annual care, and that is where I can decide this year that I would like flowers, next year I can decide I want flowers, and this happens year over year. That is a smaller portion of the flowers we plant in the cemeteries, but we do allocate some flowers for that annual care.”
At the time of the meeting, no annual care arrangements had been purchased for 2020, and Rob noted that the town tracks the number of purchased arrangements each year so that it can trend how many flowers it is going to need to procure for the upcoming season, which requires forward planning.
“We tender our flowers in the fall every year,” he said.
“We know year over year how many flowers we’re going to need and so we always go out in fall so that the greenhouses have ample time to prepare for us. We are not talking a couple of flowers here, we are talking for entire town, cemeteries and other beds, almost 64-thousand flowers. We need to make sure our greenhouses have time to prepare for that number of flowers, so we tender in the fall, so we have committed to purchasing those flowers. So like I said, this is [about] what we’re going to now do with these 64-thousand flowers.”
The report shows that the town paid close to $22-thousand for this year’s flowers.
Rob also noted that in a conversation with the Bereavement Authority of Ontario (BAO), it came up that the town is an outlier in how they are currently operating cemeteries during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I did speak with [the BAO] about if there was any impacts to us choosing to not plant flowers,” he said.
“When I spoke with the licensing agent from the BAO, she was genuinely surprised that our cemeteries were even open to public. The calls that she had been receiving related to cemetery operations in light of the whole COVID situation were more geared around ‘is there a requirement to cut grass?’ Many cemetery operators have basically suspended all operations: grass cutting, maintenance, the gates of the cemetery are closed and locked, funerals are let in but only with a very limited number of people. We are not at this point looking at doing any service level changes to that extent. Basically all we’re looking at is flowers. We don’t intend to close our cemeteries at this point in time and the province has said for funerals there’s a maximum number of attendees and so we’re doing as much as we can to try and facilitate the day to day operations of those cemeteries.”
Following the discussion with Rob, town council agreed that the report would indeed be sent back to the Operations and Facilities executive committee for review in order to determine what the best course of action would be for the flowers.