Politics & Government

Fayette sheriff's department will take over funeral escorts

Lexington police officers blocked traffic at Main Street and Broadway for a funeral procession in May. The Fayette County Sheriff's Department will take over this duty starting Aug. 1.
Lexington police officers blocked traffic at Main Street and Broadway for a funeral procession in May. The Fayette County Sheriff's Department will take over this duty starting Aug. 1.

Fayette County sheriff's deputies will begin escorting Lexington funeral processions on Aug. 1, taking over for a cash- and personnel-strapped police department.

Sheriff Kathy Witt announced the change Friday in a news release, saying her office can handle the job without hiring more deputies or charging funeral homes.

"Our partners at the Division of Police have humbly provided this service to our community for many years, and the Office of the Sheriff is pleased to assume this responsibility," she said in the news release.

In 2010, police provided 2,041 free funeral escorts, requiring 8,000 work hours, police Chief Ronnie Bastin has said. He announced the the end of funeral escorts earlier this year as the police department prepared to cut 7.7 percent, or $4.59 million, of its spending in the fiscal year that began July 1.

Lexington police will continue to provide the service through this month.

Several local funeral directors protested the decision, saying it would lead to an increase in traffic accidents as lengthy funeral processions tried to stay together through stoplights.

On Friday, funeral directors were relieved at the news.

"We are tickled to death she is doing this for us because it is a real safety concern — the thought of trying to get a funeral procession across town and through busy intersections without incident," said Grant Bolt, general manager of Milward Funeral Directors, the city's oldest funeral home.

"Funeral homes are ecstatic because the safety factor had everyone worried," said Billy Shell, a partner in Kerr Brothers Funeral Home.

When he read that Bastin proposed cutting funeral escorts, Shell said he immediately talked with Witt because "the sheriff's office seemed the logical alternative."

This was not the first time Lexington police have attempted to cut police escorts.

In 2003, the police department sent funeral directors a letter saying the escort service would be eliminated "in the near future." Facing public protest, the decision was reversed.

This time was different, Shell said.

"We got a letter from Chief Bastin saying it's over. It was a done deal before the fight got started," he said.

Funeral directors received a letter from Witt on Friday in which she asked to meet with them in her office next week "just to talk about what we can expect," Bolt said.

Sheriff spokeswoman Jennifer Miller said Friday that no additional resources will be needed to provide funeral escorts. She did not know the number of deputies in the sheriff's office.

"We know we will be able to take care of this project with the people we have. It won't be a problem," Miller said.

Shell said the decision to continue funeral escorts will help Lexington keep its unique character as other cities let such traditions die.

"Our city needs to be a little bit different than other cities our size," he said. "We should provide a show of respect for citizens whose lives have contributed to the character of the city."

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