As Trinity Church's Election Nears, Financial Disclosures and a Looming Lawsuit

Categories: Religion

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Trinity Wall Street, the powerful Episcopal church and real estate giant wracked by internal disagreements over the leadership of Rector James Cooper, is scheduled to hold an election on Tuesday.

The vote is held annually to elect members of the vestry--the Episcopal equivalent of a board of directors for the church. But ever since the last election, when Cooper used the election to purge the vestry of his remaining critics, the election process has been the subject of controversy. Jeremy Bates, a member of the congregation, sued Trinity's leadership in February, alleging that elections are rigged; Cooper's nominating committee only selects as many candidates as there are available positions, and ballots only offer congregants the opportunity to vote "yes."

Bates told the Voice he filed the suit to try to make sure that this year's election wouldn't be another sham, but his suit is concerned with more than just voting protocol -- he also wanted the church to open its books to the public, rather than keeping Trinity's finances secret.

Since Bates filed his suit, two interesting things have happened: First, the church announced that Cooper intends to step down as rector -- in 2015. Then, on Friday, the church published an audited financial report for 2011.

According to that report, the market value of Trinity's real estate holdings exceeds $2 billion -- more than twice the estimates previously bandied about. "In 2011, real estate revenue totaled $158 million," the report states. "After operating expenses of $106 million, net income from Trinity's real estate operation was $52 million. Trinity's ministry expenses in 2011 were $38 million, up 5.3% over 2010 expenses. Trinity paid over $20 million in real estate taxes in 2011."

The financial statement released Friday provides only a top-level view of how the church spends its money. The largest line item, at $10.5 million, is for "Mission, ministry, and office of the rector," up 17 percent from the previous year. St. Margaret's House, Trinity's home for the elderly, costs $4.7 million to operate, but pulls in $5.4 million in revenue. The church spends $3.8 million on communications and $4 million on "business office and institutional expenditures," and $6 million on grants, other gifts, and Trinity's contribution to the Episcopal diocese.

Whether the release of Trinity's financials will have any effect on Bates's lawsuit remains to be seen. Expect a New York Supreme Court justice to rule on Monday on whether to grant an injunction against holding Tuesday's scheduled vestry election.

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[npinto@villagevoice.com] [@macfathom]

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