Tax Dollars Fund Video Thanking Commissioner - WSMV News 4

Tax Dollars Fund Video Thanking Commissioner

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What the Channel 4 I-Team uncovered about spending in one state agency was something the commissioner of that agency didn't want to talk about on camera.

 

 

When a person begins a project, either at home or work, he or she gets an estimate to know much it's going to cost. The Channel 4 I-Team found that at least on two projects, that didn't seem to be how the state Department of Tourist Development works.

 

Commissioner Susan Whitaker acted as though the I-Team wasn't there when the I-Team showed up after we spent months examining how tax money is being spent in the Department of Tourist Development.

 

Questions concerned how creating and distributing a brochure ended up costing more than $100,000 and why the department spent thousands more on a video to thank the commissioner for doing her job.

 

"There are some concerns about abuse of taxpayer money," said Justin Owen of the Tennessee Center for Policy Research.

 

The tourism trail brochures called Walking Tall promote all Tennessee has to offer and are full of individual information on tourist destinations across the state. The ad agency White Thompson, which won the state bid for the brochures, indicated it would cost about $15,000 to develop six brochures, plus about $4,000 for the logo.

 

But when the I-Team began inspecting the invoices, it found that just a year later, the estimate to finish the brochures had doubled.

 

The estimate for the brochure a year later jumped to about $40,000 to finish the same brochure.

 

In the end, it cost $64,000. Add on the printing, and the final total was more than $100,000 in tax dollars to put the brochure in tourist destinations across the state.

 

"If I told my board that a project was going to cost $15,000 and it ultimately ended up costing $40,000, then costing $60,000, I've got some explaining to do," said Owen.

 

The I-Team obtained a memo from December from the former assistant commissioner of Tourist Development, Jennifer Spence. She wrote, "It's important that we are being as efficient as possible with public funds. We have to get back on course with the budget that has been stated. We'll need to discuss the future brochures that already have significant cost to them."

 

She also told the ad agency to get back with a revised budget of $15,000 per brochure.

 

"I certainly think it shows there are people within the department who understand the problem and want to fix the problem," Owen said.

 

Whitaker wouldn't answer questions on camera, but her public information officer sent an email, saying that this is "an excellent use of state dollars, because of the return on the investment. Early estimates of the cost for the trails were made without any precedents to benchmark and had to be revised and approved as the work was done."

 

The email noted, "We have 'gone to school' on what works well and what could be improved, in terms of costs of the brochures."

 

The I-Team wanted to know how much other advertising experts would pay for a brochure like this. It gave the brochure to three advertising and public relations designers to find out how much they would pay an agency to design, research and create the Walking Tall brochure.

 

Each said it would cost $20,000 at the most.

 

"The question: Are there accountability measures in place to protect taxpayer dollars?" asked Owen.

 

Assistant Commissioner Tom Lightsley, who's in charge of the budget in the department, closed the door on the I-Team when it tried to talk to Whitaker.

 

"I certainly don't have an interview with you," Lightsley said.

 

He and the commissioner just drove away.

 

In a video that tax dollars paid for, thanking the commissioner for doing her job, executives across the state can be seen thanking her for her work promoting tourism.

 

It features her family and was a shown at a state tourism convention along with another video thanking then-Gov. Phil Bredesen for doing his job.

 

According to state invoices, those videos cost taxpayers more than $15,000.

 

"A video with taxpayer money, thanking them for the job they got paid to do, seems a little overboard," said Owen.

 

The public information officer for Tourist Development said in her email that although the commissioner requested the thank-you video for the governor be made, Whitaker didn't know there was also a video being made to thank her for her work.

 

It's unclear how much the commissioner reviews her department's spending. For the hundreds of invoices the I-Team looked at for these projects, she didn't sign off on a single one.

 

The advertising agency that won this bid did not respond to the I-Team by deadline.

 

The assistant commissioner who questioned the costs of the brochure and the video was fired by the commissioner shortly after she raised the questions.

 

Spence sent the I-Team this statement:

 

"In my five years of serving Tennessee tourism, I am proud of the marketing initiatives accomplished. Tourism is a strong return on investment for Tennessee. It's important to leverage budget dollars of any employer, particularly tax dollars, and I made every effort to do so."

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