As Ron Littlefield's days as Chattanooga mayor crawl to a close, speculation is running rampant about what will become of one of his most contentious pet projects, the Education, Arts and Culture Department.
Mayor-elect Andy Berke has given no indication that he cares to keep the beleaguered department. Even if he does, it might not matter. The city commission appears prepared to put program out of its misery. During pre-election interviews with the Times Free Press' editorial page editors, a majority of the people who will make up the new Chattanooga City Council stated a desire to shutter EAC and return the agency's functions to the city Parks and Recreation Department -- and for good reason.
Shortly after becoming mayor, Littlefield unnecessarily split the city's arts and culture duties that were previously managed by Parks and Recreation into a new Education, Arts and Culture Department. When the mayor announced that Missy Crutchfield would manage the department, it became apparent that the new bureaucracy was invented to provide a seemingly important job for the daughter of political ally Ward Crutchfield, a former state Senator who pled guilty to bribery during the Tennessee Waltz scandal.
Little did it matter that Missy Crutchfield didn't have the resume to justify her $107,000 salary and lacked the managerial experience to handle a $2.4 million annual budget.
Chattanoogans are paying a hefty price for Littlefield's act of cronyism.
For starters, because of EAC's mismanagement of the Tivoli Theatre and Memorial Auditorium, the two city-owned venues regularly lose nearly a million dollars a year. This fiscal year, taxpayers will have to shell out an estimated $805,000 to bail out the insolvent performance halls.
In December, it was reported that city auditors discovered misappropriated funds at the venues and lax financial controls over cash and checks that left an as-of-yet undetermined amount of money unaccounted for. It was at least the fourth time since 2005 city auditors approached EAC with many of the same problems.
Beyond Memorial and the Tivoli, which hemorrhage money annually and have lost untold amounts of money due to negligent financial management, EAC costs Chattanoogans in other ways. According to a Free Press review of EAC financial documents, some of the more questionable taxpayer-funded expenses on EAC's books include:
• $9,107 last year to subsidize an EAC-managed pottery studio at John A. Patten Recreation Center.
• $586 for decorations, door prizes, refreshments and 80 pieces of chicken from KFC for a holiday party at the Eastgate Senior Center.
• $394 to buy Christmas decorations for the North River Civic Center.
• $360 for a retirement party for Mickey Hipp, the former Technical Director at the Memorial Auditorium.
• $227 to frame a poster from the movie "Water for Elephants" and a mayor's proclamation.
• $168 to purchase trophies for a 2011 car show in Hixson.
On top of those expenses, in 2010, city auditors criticized Crutchfield and EAC spokeswoman Melissa Turner for using city time and resources to work on and promote their for-profit online publication, Be Magazine. Crutchfield apologized, but never repaid taxpayers the money she wasted.
In January, Crutchfield launched another website, www.MissyCrutchfield.com, which appears to lay the groundwork for personal public speaking and consulting efforts. When, through an open records request, the Free Press sought to determine whether Crutchfield had, again, worked on personal business on taxpayers' time using taxpayer-funded equipment when she developed her personal site, we ran into a peculiar roadblock.
Crutchfield circumvented transparency measures by apparently setting her browser to store no evidence of what websites she visited using her city computer. Her blank Internet browser history raises questions about what she is hiding. Did Crutchfield work on her personal website, or perhaps even Be Magazine, when she should have been serving city residents and taxpayers?
From the beginning, EAC was created as a political payback and provided little value to the people of Chattanooga. As a result of Crutchfield's bungled management of the agency, EAC has become a heavy burden on taxpayers. On April 15, Chattanooga will welcome a new mayor and a new city council. The new government's first order of business should be to can Crutchfield and close the Education, Arts and Culture Department.