From the Board
Editor Albany UU | Feb 12, 2020

The Board of Trustees, at its October meeting, constituted a Building Assessment Team to provide a detailed description of the current status of our physical plant. The resulting report provides the Board with a factual basis for setting building policy and funding priorities. Team members were Fred Eames, Amie Jamieson, Dave MacLeod and Reese Satin.

The Team first convened a two-hour data-gathering meeting in November with members of the Buildings and Grounds (B&G) Committee and the Church Administrator. Following the meeting, notes were gathered from attendees. This report integrates those notes with the addition of historic space reservation and budgetary information.

It was tempting to compare our building costs with those of other churches. However, it quickly became apparent that published building costs relative to other institutions’ budgets are insufficiently detailed to permit accurate comparisons.

We found that our building is used extensively by both our members and friends, and by outside groups seven days a week. In 2019, there were 2,134 reservations made for space in our building. (An event may include reservations for more than one space.) Of all our spaces, basement rooms in the new and Ed. Buildings are the most frequently used, while, the Lobby areas and the Sanctuary are used least frequently. Overall, almost 70% of the reservations were for internal events and a quarter are for paid rentals. 

Building use is relatively evenly spread throughout the day tending to start in the morning. By contrast, building use varies widely over the year, peaking in March and November with relatively little use over the Summer.

This level of building use (almost 6 reservations per day) produces high wear and tear on the facility engendering higher maintenance costs. Currently, rental income does not come close to covering all building maintenance. Income from building rentals is roughly equal to 80% of our debt service or roughly the combined amount we annually allocate to Buildings & Grounds and our Capital Reserve budget lines. It is clear from this that our rental income, though substantial, is far from offsetting the cost of maintaining our building.

Day to day cleaning of the interior of the building is accomplished through a janitorial contract that is a cost-effective substitute for a staff janitor. However, the service does no repairs. This is supplemented by 4-5 hours of a Sexton per week who only does “light” maintenance and, when rentals require it, by the limited use of an Hourly Custodian. All janitorial functions are overseen by the Church Administrator. 

Routine repairs to the interior and exterior of the building are accomplished by a mix of volunteers (Gardening and B&G Committees). Exterior janitorial work is done by self-selected uncoordinated volunteers who pick up trash as the spirit moves them and by an hourly employee for snow removal. More involved repair projects are being done by ad hoc combinations of B&G volunteers and paid professionals.

Day to day building operation and rentals are handled and coordinated by the Church Administrator and her Assistant. Emergent maintenance needs are usually communicated to the B&G Chair who solicits volunteers or authorizes the hiring of commercial contractors. 

Currently, costly maintenance and replacement projects are paid with Capital Reserve funds which accumulates Annual Budget allocations. The Capital Reserve allocation is also the source of funding for routine maintenance costs when they exceed their budget line. 

Some Assessment Team members believe we need a long-range maintenance/replacement plan as a better means of justifying needed funding to the Board. However, such a plan is beyond the capability of the current B&G Committee and would require a search for a knowledgeable volunteer or the purchase of professional services. 

There are a number of major building projects that, though recognized,  have been deferred because of a combination of their likely expense and our ability to work around them. We have multiple chronic drainage problems which require B&G’s frequent attention. We have repeatedly clogged roof drains which require trips to the roof and non-functioning basement drains. In addition, there is a fire escape which is no longer required on West St. that blocks access to a drain and needs to be removed. B&G has also observed rotting window frames on the RE section of the building and the need to repoint the bricks on the original section of our building. There is also a variety of masonry and sidewalk projects on West St. which affect safety and drainage to eliminate unevenness and the pooling of water (which turns to ice) on the sidewalk. There are repeated comments about the shabby appearance of our main rest rooms in the entry hall and there have been many requests to replace the non-functioning water fountain with a drinking water source, since none exists on the main floor.

There are a number of current trends that impact both the functioning and sustainability of our building. Most immediately, current staffing all but eliminates the Sexton’s repair and event set-up/ take-down functions. This might have made sense when the B&G Committee was larger and more physically capable, but the Committee can no longer perform all these tasks. The absence of a regularly available sexton also frequently necessitates the diversion of administrative staff for rearranging rooms between events. The result is that building maintenance functions are increasingly outsourced at considerable cost to, and decreased involvement of, our members.

Another trend is the decline of budget allocations for routine maintenance that have not kept pace with the size of the overall budget or the cost of routine maintenance expenses.  Similarly, Capital Reserve allocations have not been sufficient to keep pace with needs as indicated by deferred major maintenance projects and a Reserve balance that is not keeping pace with our ageing buildings.

Finally, the budget allocation for debt service, instead of increasing as originally planned, has been frozen at a point where payments will continue for another 13 years. This extension of the period of debt ties up funds in interest payments that might be used to increase maintenance and Capital Reserve allocations.

At present, our building is meeting most of our needs very well. It is a serviceable, well-used and busy place. At the same time, it, and the people and policies that maintain it, are showing their age. The financial and human resources necessary to sustain the building’s appearance and functionality have been sacrificed for personnel and programmatic initiatives. Admittedly, the cause of this situation is similar to other aspects of church life where volunteerism has decreased and resulted in the need to purchase services. However, unlike most aspects of church life, investments in our building can directly increase our income and foster our mission. The Building Assessment Team encouraged the Board to keep in mind that there is a relationship between building appearance and member attachment, community perception and rental income.