“Pork Report” criticizes government spending on Volkswagen, EPB projects

Authored By James Harrison

A nonpartisan group determined to pull back the veil on wasteful government spending released its annual “Pork Report” Tuesday and made the charge that plenty of funds were squandered for projects in Chattanooga this year.

The Beacon Center for Tennessee, originally founded as the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, said at least $468 million in government funds were misspent this year. Among the projects listed as contributing to the total amount were funding for a rooftop advertisement at Volkswagen’s Chattanooga plant and monies put toward the establishment of EPB’s smart grid, which has provided Chattanooga with the only gigabit-per-second fiber optic network in the country.

“See your tax dollars from space,” said the headline for a portion of the report dedicated to calling out a $266,000 grant from the state given to VW in January of this year to put toward a rooftop sign that reads “Volkswagen Chattanooga.”

“The claim is that the company can market to passengers flying in and out of the Chattanooga airport,” the report reads. “The only problem is that the airport is not exactly a bustling hub. On average, a mere 595 passengers fly in and out daily.”

Guenther Scherelis, general manager of communication for Volkswagen of Chattanooga, responded to the report’s accusation of wasteful spending by describing the rooftop sign as a “good marketing initiative,” adding that it was not intended to be viewed only by people who were flying in airplanes.

“Hundreds of millions of people will be able to see the sign on Google Earth and recognize that Chattanooga was attractive to one of the biggest car manufacturers worldwide to create more than 3,000 jobs there,” Scherelis said in an emailed statement. “It is a good marketing initiative for the city, the state and the company.”

In another portion of the report, the group alleges that more than $100 million in stimulus funding put toward EPB’s establishment of a smart grid has discouraged private communication providers such as AT&T and Comcast from pursuing business growth in the Chattanooga area. 

“Fewer and fewer private companies wish to compete against EPB, who will soon have a monopoly in the Chattanooga market,” the report reads, underneath the headline “Beam Me Up Taxpayer.”

EPB President Harold DePriest responded to the claim by saying the fiber optic network had already been an “important economic development tool” for attracting new businesses to the area. DePriest also said that many of the benefits of the smart grid to Chattanooga were beyond the measures of government dollars spent. 

“The benefits of this type of network expand beyond the budget sheet,” DePriest said in an emailed statement. “When a physician can make a diagnosis in minutes instead of days, or when a student can learn from an expert thousands of miles away, that adds real value to the community. The network has proven invaluable on the electric power service side as well, saving thousands from long-term power outages and lost productivity for local businesses.”