published Sunday, July 3rd, 2011

Tennessee Multicultural Chamber loses funding from Chattanooga, Hamilton County

  • photo
    Sherrie Gilchrist is the executive director of the Tennessee Multicultural Chamber of Commerce.
    Photo by Tim Barber /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

The Tennessee Multicultural Chamber of Commerce won’t be getting any money from Chattanooga or Hamilton County this year.

The city and county have put money into the minority Chamber each year since it was formed in 1999. For 2012, the Multicultural Chamber requested $150,000 from the city and $75,000 from the county.

The governments initially had allocated $75,000 each for the coming year. But after the Chattanooga Times Free Press revealed inconsistencies and omissions in the Chamber’s budget requests in a front-page story June 19, the city and county mayors each zeroed out the allocations.

“It will take some extraordinary review and consideration before we would put it back into the budget,” Chattanooga Mayor Ron Littlefield said.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger said the county would consider a closer review of budget requests in the future.

“It’s the people’s money,” he said. “We’re responsible for being the stewards and making sure it’s being spent responsibly.”

Sherrie Gilchrist, executive director of the Multicultural Chamber, did not return a phone message seeking comment Friday.

The Times Free Press review showed the Multicultural Chamber spending about $350,000 this year to operate an office and pay two staffers while spending less than $34,000 on programs.

The Multicultural Chamber formed in 1999 as the African-American Chamber, with Gilchrist as its director. Supporters said the larger Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce wasn’t providing enough resources, training and contacts to help small, minority-owned businesses compete for contracts. The agency became the Multicultural Chamber in 2007.

In an interview for the June 19 story, Gilchrist said the agency has about 575 members.

A member list on the website — which may not be current — includes just 208 names. A Chamber board member previously said many members have dropped out.

Membership fees range from $40 for students and $100 for individuals, up to $1,500 for businesses with sales up to $5,000, plus additional tiers of $5,000, $10,000 and $20,000 for larger corporate members.

Gilchrist told the city and county the Chamber offers at least a dozen programs a year to help minority business owners access training and make contacts, but the organization’s website lists only two events to date this year.

Gilchrist said the Chamber has put on 15 to 20 events so far this year. She said notification goes out in a weekly email blast to 15,000 people. She said in mid-June she would add the Times Free Press to the list but had not done so as of Friday.

Different Numbers

The newspaper found mismatches in revenue, salary and spending claims in the Chamber’s budget requests to the city and county. Lewis Lavine, executive director of the Center for Nonprofit Management in Nashville, said the inconsistencies raised red flags.

For instance, a narrative portion of the request describing the Chamber’s operations and membership claimed the program is growing fast. But attached financial information showed membership revenue actually had fallen by $40,000 since the 2010 fiscal year, to $129,000.

The $467,840 operating budget included $102,786 for salaries. But an attached salary schedule showed a $112,000 salary for Gilchrist and $42,179 for an aide.

Gilchrist previously said the salary listed in the operating budget should have been about $154,000. She could not explain why an incorrect figure was listed, although she said she prepared the requests.

In the budget request given to the county, Gilchrist’s salary line was X’d out. When county commissioners questioned the omission, she blamed a glitch in the spreadsheet software.

Both requests had the same overall operating budget, but some individual spending items appeared in only one request. For example, the city request budgeted $10,000 for fundraising expenses, but that line was missing from the county request.

The Chamber also reported different numbers of people benefiting from its programs in its requests to the city and county, and breakdowns of beneficiaries by age, sex and ethnicity didn’t add up.

Earlier, Gilchrist explained the differences by saying the city and county budget requests were due on different dates and that the Chamber updated information on the later request.

The city requests but doesn’t require an audit from agencies that receive taxpayer money.

Though the Multicultural Chamber budgets for an annual audit, Gilchrist said the 2010 audit was not ready. That would cover the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2010.

“Missed Stitches”

Littlefield said Thursday that Gilchrist met with him Wednesday about the funding request.

He said Gilchrist brought a copy of a prior-year audit that city finance officials will study.

“We’ll be fair. We’ll take a close look at the figures and the audit, share them with the council and see what they want to do,” he said. “This is not a good year for things that are not well supported by facts and figures.”

While larger requesting agencies have regular audits, he said, to require an annual audit would be a burden on smaller agencies.

“We don’t have that many missed stitches. Of course, one could pop up from time to time, but most of the agencies we deal with are old, mainline agencies.”

The county is giving $525,000 and the city $450,000 to the Greater Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce this year. The larger Chamber partners with both governments on economic development and job creation.

Coppinger called that funding a “good investment of taxpayer dollars.”

“The Chamber plays an integral part in economic development and recruitment, and that pays large dividends,” he said.

about Judy Walton...

Judy Walton has worked 25 years at the Chattanooga Times and the Times Free Press as an editor and reporter focusing on government coverage and investigations. At various times she has been an assistant metro editor, region reporter and editor, county government reporter, government-beat team leader, features editor and page designer. Originally from California, Walton was brought up in a military family and attended a dozen schools across the country. She earned a journalism degree ...

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MasterChefLen said...

This issue should be investigated by the state Attorney General's office for fraud. When the IRS comes calling to the average citizen, the lame excuses Sherrie Gilchrist gave the city and county do not fly. This just goes to show the lack of competence of the Chattanooga City Mayor (Ron Littlefield) and his "rubberstamp" city council for giving taxpayer money away freely without proper thought and controls.

July 3, 2011 at 12:35 a.m.
HannaBeckman said...

She, and her org. GONE!!!! She better be packing a jail bagtoothbrush/panties/white t-shirts/med.forms/to speed up processing!!!

July 3, 2011 at 12:46 a.m.
328Kwebsite said...

The Chamber of Commerce is basically a PAC for laundering campaign contributions to Republicans. It's a Republican money machine, not a proper organization representing community interests in business. Look at all of the Karl Rove scandals the US Chamber of Commerce has financed.

Hardly an equitable or intelligent use of resources.

What's happening is that one organization is trying to help minority businesses, and the other is trying to buy more Republicans.

Our local politicos are trying to pay the Republicans with tax dollars. They've got to cut off that funding for non-Republican blacks because there's a limit to how much our local self-appointed kings can spend on royalties for themselves and still have the check clear.

The only reason why these guys see one as "good" and the other as a "bad" investment is because one buys them TV commercials for their party. So now, we're trying to make the organization filled with blacks look incompetent to discredit them when it's time to receive funding.

I find it slightly racist that we would try to tell people with black skin that they can't do math. That's part of the argument here. I'm pretty sure we've all seen summarized spreadsheets that had some errors in them. At one point, the city had one up on their now-famous website as a substitute for a budget. Its numbers didn't fully represent the costs, either. The fact that the leader of the Minority Chamber can appear and show that she has had an audit done at all shows she's far ahead of the game.

They'll cut her off, by claiming plenty of poormouthing.

Yet, we have plenty of money for websites made by our friends.

July 3, 2011 at 9:01 a.m.
librul said...

Hooo Boy! You would think the Multicultural Chamber was on par with the Pentagon in budgetary shenanigans! One wonders what little gems could be uncovered in a similar nitpicking audit of the "large" chamber - given that it is nothing but an arm of the corpocracy doing their political bidding.

We can all wait with baited breath to see what sort of programs the "large" chamber can establish for the benefit of this area's minority and ethnic businesses since it is either afraid of their success or jealous of the fact that they have had no need for its assistance - or both.

July 3, 2011 at 9:07 a.m.
328Kwebsite said...

There will be plenty of programs for minorities who vote Republican. People actually interested in business can read up on it at the public library, even though the funding for that operation has been reduced to "bake sale" levels.

July 3, 2011 at 9:12 a.m.
328Kwebsite said...

Have a look at the Republican money machine sitting on the board at the Center for Nonprofit Management.

These are the people, listed as a reference in the story, as evaluating the quality of our local people's actions. Three investment bankers and a real estate tycoon, all in California, are not the kind of people we need to have judging our local people's character.

July 3, 2011 at 9:51 a.m.
fechancellor said...

librul, 328Kwebsite:

Here's how the pros in the Black Causus get it done. They made a mistake when they went after Obama for his lack of dedication African-American causes.

Of course, the New York Times (the Obama News Service) had Barry's back and any public agitation from the CBC was silenced.

..In Black Caucus, a Fund-Raising Powerhouse

July 3, 2011 at 10:50 a.m.
librul said...

Cbtole, you have succinctly summed up the "method" that the Chattanooga power structure uses to manipulate the community, and in this case, deny minorities equal participation and access and denigrate their efforts to become established in the local business community. In tandem with mean, unfair, imbalanced reporting from the Free Press, the local politicos present themselves as disappointed bystanders thus undermining the credibility of a person or organization - even as they have been in total support in the past. Then there is the racist "our gang" that the republicans unleash to propagandize and poison public opinion against the victim. That's where people like you come in - you know, garbage like you.

July 3, 2011 at 9:50 p.m.
hambone said...

And I see where the CEO of the "big" chamber gets $180,000 from Hamilton County.

July 3, 2011 at 11:18 p.m.
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