March 17th, 2013 in Opinion Free Press

Did you know that Chattanooga tax dollars are wasted so people can play with mud?

It turns out that the City of Chattanooga owns and operates a pottery studio. The studio, located at the John A. Patten Recreational Center on Kellys Ferry Road, is a financial disaster that draws only five users a day on average -- raising the question of why the city is in the pottery studio business to begin with.

The pottery studio, which is managed by the City of Chattanooga's Education, Arts and Culture Department, is promoted as a destination for those seeking pottery-making instruction as well as workspace for local pottery artisans.

But don't get carried away by the memory of the famous movie scene featuring Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze in a romantic interlude at the pottery wheel while the soaring sounds of "Unchained Melody" crescendo in the background. This pottery center is hemorrhaging money. Your money.

According to city financial information obtained by the Free Press editorial page through an open records request, the pottery studio is a boondoggle. Our examination of records from fiscal years 2010, 2011 and 2012 found that for every dollar the pottery studio generates in revenue from fees and materials charges, taxpayers spend $1.76 subsidizing the insolvent earthenware facility.

Over the last three years, city leaders squandered $70,579 in tax dollars on the government-owned pottery studio, while the studio generated just $39,991 in revenues.

The problem is that, unlike the hundreds of private pottery studios that flourish throughout America, Chattanooga's government-owned facility has no incentive to treat customers well, to respond to consumer demand, to operate a clean, welcoming facility or to make money.

As a result, few people are interested in using the studio.

During the 2012 fiscal year, the pottery studio tallied a measly 1,104 visits by several hundred area residents. Since the studio is open about 220 days a year, only about five people a day on average use the facility. The pottery studio's finances are so far in the red that taxpayers spent $8.25 to subsidize each person who threw, glazed or fired pottery at the Patten Recreational Center last year.

In order to keep the pottery studio well-stocked for the few people who do walk through the door, EAC burns through thousands of tax dollars on clay and other pottery-related items each year. A sampling of several months of invoices from the North Carolina-based Highwater Clays reveals the city spends an average of $792 per month on pottery supplies and clay.

If taxpayers are forced to pay for expensive dirt, they should, at the very least, expect it to grow enough revenue to enable the pottery center to break even. But, because of EAC's poor management and the lack of incentive for the pottery studio to generate enough revenue to become self-sufficient, that's not going to happen.

The questions we must ask, then, is why are taxpayers footing the bill to fund a program that should exist as private business? What's next? A hotel? A cable and Internet company? A private airplane service facility? Oh, wait. Nevermind. We already have those.

Hopefully, with the election of a new mayor, change is coming.

Recently, Chattanooga Mayor-elect Andy Berke told the Times Free Press that during his transition into office he will focus on seeking public input regarding what is needed in city government.

Well, one thing that's not needed is a city-owned pottery studio.

Eliminating it would show that Berke is serious about putting the city's priorities in order, getting the government out of places it has no business and making sure that Chattanoogans' hard-earned tax dollars are well spent.