By Rick Aragon

Tucked away in a small corner of Northeast El Paso is a four-acre cemetery that has been left to decay.

Rick Aragon

Ignored and all but abandoned by its owner, the dead here endure many indignities. There are headstones overturned, vandalized, or so worn away that now only God knows their names.  Weeds rather than flowers dominate the grounds. No gate or fencing protects the graves save for those made for some of the deceased by their families. The area is so filled with thorns that it is advisable to take two pairs of shoes when visiting: one to wear while at the cemetery, the other to drive away from it.

The shameful and forlorn condition of this cemetery reveals the owner has no interest in even the most rudimentary care of its property. Under normal circumstances, the owner would be cited by the authorities for neglect. They would face fines, perhaps even arrest for the shocking lack of care. In this case, the owner is the government itself, one that decided it needed more money from the living to continue desecrating the dead.

El Paso County created the McGill Pauper Cemetery 90 years ago to provide burials for people who either could not afford a private burial or were unidentified when they died. In nearly a century of McGill’s existence, the county has failed at every level of care in maintaining its property.

The decay that McGill has fallen into is monstrous enough. Recent news, however, reveals the county’s systemic failure to maintain its own property is emblematic of a larger problem plaguing county governance. That problem is its financial priorities.  

On Aug. 28, the El Paso County Commissioners Court voted itself a 16% pay raise while simultaneously raising taxes on county residents to the highest level legally permissible without voter approval.

Commissioner David Stout, whose district includes the McGill Cemetery, defended his vote increasing his pay from $114,900 to $133,500 by stating that the county was now “making up for the deferred cost-of-living adjustments we neglected to provide ALL employees.” (Emphasis his.) 

The commissioners are not mere county employees but elected officials with the power of the purse. 

What guarantee is there that the tax increase would be responsibly spent to improve county properties or services? If the county will not maintain a small cemetery, how can it be trusted to be responsible with larger projects?  

A crumbling tombstone at the county-owned McGill Cemetery in Northeast El Paso. (Photo courtesy Rick Aragon)

What makes the Commissioner Court’s cash grab more puzzling is that the solutions for McGill are quite simple, relatively inexpensive and need not be done overnight. The county would not have to spend millions on such improvements as proper lighting and fencing to protect graves, small road pavement work and new headstones to replace the dilapidated ones. 

County Judge Ricardo Samaniego’s $21,200 pay increase could be used as seed money to begin the desperately needed McGill repairs and restorations. Instead, Commissioners Court is apparently putting its own personal finances ahead of the community’s needs. 

It is long past time to hold county officials accountable, financially and morally, for caring more about their own checking accounts than their own constituents. 

Each person buried at McGill is worthy of respect, regardless of his or her financial circumstances at the time of their death. It is evil that those souls at McGill continue to be abused and neglected by those in power. 

The McGill Cemetery is county property. It is responsible for maintaining a proper, dignified place for those buried there. It has failed in this duty. 

Had McGill been a private cemetery, Commissioner Stout might have railed against its disgraceful condition. However, as it is county property, his lack of interest for McGill’s poor reveal his true beliefs. Repairing, restoring and maintaining county property is not a priority to Commissioners Court, not if it gets in the way of additional compensation for themselves.

County Judge Samaniego suggested that Commissioner Iliana Holguin, the sole dissenting vote, return the pay increase. I see his challenge and raise him this one. 

Judge, donate your pay raise to begin restoring and repairing the McGill Cemetery. My guess is that he’d sooner die and be buried at McGill than give up a penny of his newly acquired fortune. 

Rick Aragon is a lifelong El Pasoan who has lived in the Mission Valley for 25 years. He is a public services librarian with the city of El Paso.