Pork Report dings Tennessee Aquarium, Chattanooga Zoo and Hamilton County Commission for wasteful spending

Pork Report dings Tennessee Aquarium, Chattanooga Zoo and Hamilton County Commission for wasteful spending

July 19th, 2016 by Judy Walton in Politics Local

Passengers brave chilly temperatures to stand outside on the observation deck during a Valentine's Day cruise on the Tennessee Aquarium's River Gorge Explorer on Sunday, Feb. 14, 2016, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

Bradley, one of the three camels at the Chattanooga Zoo, keeps his hooves cool in a water bucket on Monday during the heat of the day.

Bradley, one of the three camels at the...

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

The Hamilton County Commission in a meeting at the courthouse.

The Hamilton County Commission in a meeting at...

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

Myrlene Marsa paddles her SurfSki in the Tennessee River past the Tennessee Aquarium on Wednesday, May 13, 2015, in Chattanooga.

Myrlene Marsa paddles her SurfSki in the Tennessee...

Photo by Doug Strickland /Times Free Press.

A free-market think tank in Nashville included Hamilton County commissioners' $900,000 "discretionary funds" on its annual Pork Report list of wasteful spending.

The Beacon Center also added appropriations of $200,000 in state funding each to the Tennessee Aquarium and Chattanooga Zoo, and $125,000 embezzled from the South Pittsburg Housing Authority to its annual list of "egregious government waste."

All told, Beacon Center spokesman Mark Cunningham said in a news release, the 11th annual report counted $480 million "squandered" by government in Tennessee in the past year.

Local officials in some cases dispute the characterization of wasted funds and say the spending has a public benefit.

That's what Hamilton County commissioners said for years when they included $100,000 apiece in the annual budget for spending on projects in their districts. Other people called it a slush fund.

Last year, County Mayor Jim Coppinger left the funds out of the county budget, only to have commissioners take the money from reserves and put it back in. Coppinger vetoed his own budget, but commissioners overrode the veto.

After a year of mostly negative publicity, however, commissioners didn't try to buck Coppinger when he left the funds out of the budget this year.

The Beacon Center listed examples of what it called mismanagement of taxpayer funds in all corners of Tennessee.

According to the center's news release, the top wasteful spender according to popular vote was the University of Tennessee's Office for Diversity and Inclusion.

"This taxpayer-funded office 'encouraged' students and faculty to use gender neutral pronouns such as 'ze' and 'zir' in lieu of 'he' and 'she' and tried to ensure that holiday parties on the campus were not 'Christmas parties in disguise,' the release stated.

In Chattanooga, it cited state budget appropriations of $200,000 each to the Tennessee Aquarium, "which taxpayers will have to shell out on top of the $30 entry fee to visit the aquarium," and the Chattanooga Zoo.

The report said the aquarium will use the money to "bolster its Madagascar lemur and tropical fish exhibits," while the zoo will build "a new giraffe exhibit."

Officials could not be reached at either of the two attractions to comment on Tuesday about the report's claims.

And the report, blaming lack of oversight, cited $125,000 that the "Accounting Director of the South Pittsburg Housing Authority stole from taxpayers for personal purchases." That official has been indicted.

"While the Chattanooga area isn't as bad as cities like Nashville, there are still examples of fraud and abuse of public funds in this year's Pork Report," said Beacon CEO Justin Owen.

"...While Tennessee has much more fiscal restraint than many other states, there are still rampant examples of waste, fraud, and abuse to uncover." he said.

We will continue to hold government officials' feet to the fire," he said.


This story was updated July 19 at 11 p.m.