After a decade of trying, Wollongong City Council has finally announced it will shut down its publicly-operated crematorium at Unanderra by the middle of this year.
The news comes four months after Parsons funerals opened a private facility nearby, which the council says has turned its ageing cremation unit into a drain on the public purse.
The council says the Parsons’ cremator, which planning staff approved despite protests from surrounding business owners in 2017, has caused the number of cremations at the public facility to drop by 63 per cent since February.
“This was a service that made us money, but we have determined that in this new environment we’ll run at a loss,” lord mayor Gordon Bradbery said.
Located at Wollongong Memorial Gardens, the cremator was installed in 1959, when the council was the only crematorium service provider. However, Cr Bradbery said the ageing unit no longer complied with safety and environmental regulations, and could not keep pace with the private facilities.
In the past, the council has estimated that installing a new cremator or upgrading equipment could cost up to $500,000, which Cr Bradbery said could not be justified.
“That is not the best way to spend ratepayers’ money,” he said.
He said the council was confident that competition between the two Wollongong crematoria, as well as ones in Nowra and Sutherland, would keep prices at a reasonable level.
The council has made a number of attempts to shut down the publicly operated cremator in the past decade.
In 2009, it considered selling-off the operation due to a looming replacement bill. However, after outcry from family members worried about having to pay higher private fees, the council agreed not to go ahead with privatisation.
Then in 2013, a controversial citizens panel – brought in to advise ways the council could save money – said the council should “exit” the crematorium business.
Despite the closure, Cr Bradbery said he was confident the private facilities would be able to cope with the demand for crematorium services.
According to recent figures, the Illawarra has the third highest cremation rate in NSW, second only to the Central Coast and Hunter. Just under 75 per cent of local residents are cremated when they die, compared with 67 per cent statewide.
Announcing the decision to “retire” the cremator, the council was at pains to point out that the rest of the memorial gardens would remain. Likewise, they said there would be no job losses due to the cremator shutdown as staff would be redeployed working in the gardens.
Over the next two financial years, about $350,000 will be spent on new infrastructure and landscaping to allow for another 500 interments in walls and gardens.