NEWBURYPORT – The congregation of the Unitarian Universalist Church voted unanimously Sunday to increase the budget to almost $800,000 for a two-year project to preserve its 1801 meetinghouse.

“I’m calling it the 100-year solution,” said Business Administrator William “Bill” Heenehan of the First Religious Society, who is the UU church’s clerk of the works.

The preservation project’s scope shot up, after rotten wooden timbers were discovered in the pediment or base of its celebrated steeple in October.

Members spent just 25 minutes on reports and questions. When Moderator K.C. Swallow called for discussion on the only motion before the special meeting, no one of the nearly 100 members gathered in the sanctuary raised a hand to speak.

Ultimately, there were just a couple of further questions before the vote was taken and the meeting was adjourned after 35 minutes.

In contrast, a much longer congregational meeting last fall, which included a vote on placing either the original weathercock or a copy back on the spire, saw dozens of members lined up to speak, some of them at length, and ultimately a decision that was reached by just a two-vote margin.

With its unanimous vote, the congregation answered any doubts about its willingness to shoulder a new total of $450,000 in debt without knowing how it will be paid.

The UU Church has obtained $470,000 in lines of credit, which chairman Lark Madden of the Finance Committee has said is “more than adequate” to pay the contractors’ bills as work is completed. Part of it is secured by the church’s $1.7 million endowment.

The church has commitments from foundations, the city, donors and banks for $350,000 so far, but Madden said Sunday, “This congregation needs to have a comprehensive discussion and consider a long-term solution” to funding the debt, a financial solution to match the long-term preservation project itself.

Capital campaign

He said a capital campaign should be expected, and noted it could include needed work on the Pleasant Street church’s Parish Hall as well as the meetinghouse.

The church’s most recent capital campaign sought to raise $900,000 to transform the dirt-floor basement of the meetinghouse into meeting rooms, offices and classrooms, a project for which the congregation still owes $200,000.

While a new capital campaign has yet to be planned, the UU church has already submitted a $150,000 request to the city’s Community Preservation Committee. The committee will review the church’s application among other requests at a meeting on Thursday, April 9, beginning at 7 p.m. in the Police Station conference room.

However, Heenehan cautioned that the committee already granted the church $200,000 last year, has just two-thirds of last year’s funds to distribute, has other churches seeking grants and is known to partially fund requests.

The Community Preservation Act levies a 2 percent surcharge on real estate taxes for all property owners, with exemptions for the first $100,000 of residential property value and property owned by any person who qualifies for low- income housing to provide the committee’s funding.

The church plans to hire American Steeple & Tower Co. of Salem to make the pediment repairs, and will also engage this firm to identify any future problems before they develop into disasters.

“Work will begin almost immediately,” he said, “and we anticipate completion by, or possibly before, June 30” of the entire project, which includes painting the one side of the meetinghouse that remains to be completed as well as other steeple work.

You may contact John Harwood at

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