See For Yourself: Grace Parishioners Asked to Pay Half the Cost of HVAC Rebuild, Despite Almost No Benefit to the Church

By | December 4, 2018

At a time when Grace Episcopal is barely hanging in there financially, there’s a dark cloud hanging over things. Specifically, members of the church are being asked to pay half the cost of replacing the HVAC systems in Merrow Hall, the wing of the complex that houses the school and the auditorium. Given the limited benefit to the church of the work, this expenditure, which is estimated to cost in total $626,440, is going to prove a difficult pill for members to swallow.

The work, which is confined to the Merrow Hall wing of the complex, comprises the auditorium, myriad classrooms, the tower rooms, and two small rooms on the third floor of the building — one of which has almost entirely been taken over by the school. In addition, while the offices and sacristy are not part of the same system, they should be included in the work, as the HVAC compressor on the roof that services these areas is already past end of life.
The problem comes into sharper perspective when one examines the question of who uses this space; it overwhelmingly is the school. Yes, the church uses several classrooms for an hour a week, and the auditorium for about two hours a week (coffee hour and La Gracia). The school, however, uses all the space, and on average 40 hours per week. Yet, per the terms of the agreement with the school, the church is being asked to pay half the costs. 
Yet if one looks at the use of the nave, the church uses it about five hours a week, while the school uses it one hour a week for its weekly chapel. (School staff refers to the nave as “our chapel,” and church officers as “volunteers in our chapel.” Not surprisingly, school parents often view the church as part of the school, resulting in a certain level of disrespect.) Despite this relatively high percentage of usage, however, the school contributes nothing to the cost of maintenance, utilities, and repairs when it comes to the nave. 
Similarly, the sharing of utilities favors the school. These costs are shared 50/50, despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of utilities are consumed by the school. As a result, and as a result of the school’s effective fundraising efforts, the school is relatively flush with cash, and will be able to pay for its share of the HVAC work from savings. (Amusingly, some vestry members in 2015 were very resistant to eliminating the $9,000 annual grant to the school, under the theory that “we then would be doing nothing for the school. Hardly.)
Nor is the school content to remain within its space. Over the years, it has managed to take over the clergy office attic, space in the undercroft, the music library (which was supposed to be temporary, but certainly has not been) and more. Indeed, at one point the school was trying hard to take over one or more of the vesting rooms, but it fortunately was not successful.
Is the school responsible for the church’s relatively lackadaisical attitude towards fundraising? Of course not. But at the same time, there’s little evidence that the school benefits the church. I mean, it’s not like students later become church members, or their families become long-term members. (In the past, some joined the church in order to get a discount on tuition, but pledges to the church from these “quasi-members” often were startlingly small, and a surprising number flew the coop the instant their kids graduated from the school. This discount is no longer available.) Indeed, if even half of each year’s graduating class became members, that would add up to 60 new families every year. This clearly is not the case.
The contingency funds for the project could also be an issue. Sensibly enough, the planning phase of the project includes $200,000 in contingency funding, which is a good idea when dealing with a 70-year-old building. Yes, the asbestos has all been removed, but a building that age invariably tosses contractors some curve balls, especially given the rather shoddy construction that formed the basis of the 1994 project. So, the church could wind up on the hook for another $100K.
True to form, the church has made no effort to save for this day. Even the fig leaf of the .05 percent of annual revenue, or $5,000, was zeroed out a few years ago in order to continue to pay Bob Malm’s outrageously generous compensation package. Meanwhile, staff is being asked to contribute to the costs of their own health insurance, and outreach is being cut, but Bob continues to live life large, with his annual month at the beach, his trips “out of town,” any time he feels like a week in Massachusetts or Georgia or elsewhere, and his autocratic control over the composition of the executive committee. Yet Bob has no game plan to grow the parish, no vision for the future, and no goals for tomorrow except to keep riding the Grace Church gravy train for as long as he can.
It’s time for parishioners to put the brakes on things and demand accountability from Bob, or make clear to Bob that it’s time to get the hell out of Dodge. The church simply cannot go on with an engaging but indifferent rector whose primary goals in life are to go jogging, hang at the beach, and play golf; and who evinces zero evidence of any genuine Christian conviction. Bob’s conduct over time has damaged the church on every front, and it’s time for change.
For the record, below is the current status of permitting with the City of Alexandria, which makes clear, inter alia, that the church has nothing to do with the project except to pay its share of the bill. Note the cost of the permitting and the fact that the city apparently has rejected the church’s mechanical plans as of today due to the lack of calculations regarding refrigerant quantity. Interesting, when you consider that the project originally was supposed to have been done last summer.