I’m not surprised by the newest controversy centered on the city’s Tourism Development Board and its spending of taxpayers’ money. This is what happens when there’s no – absolutely zero – financial oversight in government.
Since 2016, Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury investigators have identified nearly $22 million in fraud, waste, and abuse in Tennessee governments and other entities that receive public funds. That’s $22 million -- not $22 dollars.
After reviewing the minutes of TDB’s meetings in October and December, times before this board knew what it was doing would be called into question, the account of what took place clearly outlines that board members designated $40,000 to be given to Warren County Chamber of Commerce to sponsor Cumberland Caverns Live by way of advertising. The first payment for 2020 sponsorship was noted in the December minutes.
TDB was told that it could not give money to Cumberland Caverns Live. Its endeavors are limited to tourism within the city’s corporate limits. To get around that, members gave the money to the Chamber with instructions that it sponsor the concert series.
You can’t do indirectly what you aren’t supposed to do directly – those words were spoken by city attorney Tim Pirtle on Tuesday night when he was discussing the situation with McMinnville Board of Mayor and Aldermen members.
I disagree with what sounded like an attempt by Mayor Ben Newman, a TDB member, to guide Pirtle in how he’d word information given to the State Comptroller Justin P. Wilson in seeking his legal determination on TDB’s actions.
“If anybody has issues with the history that I relay or the slant, if any, that I put on it, I’d welcome to hear from you,” said Pirtle.
Newman replied, “I think you need to state the facts as they currently are – that the Tourism Development Board authorized funds to go to the Chamber of Commerce and that those funds should be used in the Chamber’s discretion on contracting with and sponsoring Cumberland Caverns Live in an amount of whatever it was.”
Discretion can be used to mean "the right to decide something based on one’s own judgment." That terminology wasn’t used in this transaction and should not be wiggled into any information by the city and given to the state in making its determination. The Chamber wasn’t given discretionary power over how to spend this money.
Alderman Mike Neal wants financial oversight on TDB expenditures, specifically anything over $10,000. That would prevent situations like this, keep city board members in the loop and allow legal consideration.
Protecting taxpayer dollars is the responsibility of every elected official. I urge Board of Mayor and Aldermen members to vote "yes" on TDB financial oversight. It’s obviously needed.
Standard reporter Lisa Hobbs can be reached at 473-2191.