CHATTANOOGA (WRCB) -- Tennessee's Multi-cultural Chamber of Commerce (TMCC) counts among its members, such high profile minority business as Edible Arrangements, and Herman's Soul Food and Catering. It boasts of a 96 percent 'satisfaction' rate; retaining members year-to-year.

"But people have questioned it for years," Chattanooga City Council member Manny Rico says. "Why (do) we have two Chambers? Is it necessary for us to fund two Chambers?"

Rico believes a new audit makes separate-Chambers, separate-funding even tougher to justify.

Auditors report that TMCC's negative equity (spending or owing more than it takes in), has ballooned from 2005 to 2009, from $48,418 to $191,382.

In 2009, TMCC Executive Director Sherrie Gilchrist earned, more than $146,000, more than twice what her counterparts took home from Big Brothers, Big Sisters and the Partnership for Families, Children and Adults, the audit reports.

"That kind of shocked me," Rico says.

"If the majority of the funding is going towards salaries, that's cause for concern," City Council member Andrae McGary says. "Because we want the dollars to go primarily towards programming."

McGary defines programming as efforts geared toward attracting, growing and promoting minority-and women-owned businesses.

TMCC has posted several signs promoting the 400 block of East Martin Luther King. But the audit finds that TMCC bought two parcels there for $500,000 in 2008 and 2009, and has yet to attract a tenant or to build a Multi-Cultural Business Center.

[Read the full audit]

The purchase prices are more than twice the properties' appraised values. In one case, TMCC paid $250,000 for a vacant lot not contiguous to its other parcels; the Patton Building, which lays between, remains privately-owned.

"People in the past have been afraid to question it," Rico says. "Because it could be a race thing, nobody wants to rock the boat.

Wednesday, Eyewitness News visited TMCC's offices after trying, repeatedly to reach Ms. Gilchrist by telephone. Her assistant told us Ms. Gilchrist was unavailable, tied up on conference calls. City Council has given TMCC's Board of Directors until Tuesday to answer 18 critical questions the audit raises.

But can TMCC make a case for retaining its $75,000 funding from City Council, and a like amount from the Hamilton County Commission?

"I couldn't vote for it," Rico says.

"As long as we have two Chambers with two separate functions, the answer is yes." McGary says. "Should we have two separate Chambers with two separate functions? I would say, No."

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