published Tuesday, November 27th, 2012

Whiskey, pay letters await Hamilton County commissioner signatures

LIQUOR DISTILLING

Signed in support:

Greg Beck

Joe Graham

Marty Haynes

Larry Henry

Warren Mackey

Not signed:

Chester Bankston

Tim Boyd

Jim Fields

Fred Skillern

COMMISSION PAY

Signed in support:

Chester Bankston

Greg Beck

Tim Boyd

Marty Haynes

Warren Mackey

Not signed:

Jim Fields

Joe Graham

Larry Henry

Fred Skillern

Enough signatures on two formal letters could allow Hamilton County commissioners to present two controversial issues before state legislators: Whether whiskey can be made in the county, and whether the commission separates control of its salary from the county mayor's budget.

Both letters need six signatures from the nine commission members before they can be brought before the county's legislative delegation for consideration. So far, each letter has five signees. Even if the letters are signed by the two-thirds majority, it does not guarantee that legislators will take them to the state level.

Chairman Larry Henry said he wants commissioners to decide whether to sign the letters by Dec. 13, when county officials meet with the local delegation of state legislators at an annual meeting set up by the county mayor, who may propose items of his own to be added to the legislative agenda.

"I feel that the commissioners need to have their minds made up or not," said Henry.

COUNTY, CITY LEADERS' PAY

Some commissioners are wanting state leaders to change the law that links their salary adjustments to the county mayor's. As it stands now, any change to the mayor's salary triggers a change to commissioners' salaries by the same percentage.

In turn, the mayor's salary is directly connected to county employees' pay. This year, the commission approved a 3 percent raise for all employees, which automatically gave a 3 percent raise to the county mayor and County Commission.

"The reason I signed that letter is so we can't give ourselves a raise whenever we give our employees [one]," said Commissioner Chester Bankston. "We don't need a raise every time our employees need one. We should be able to separate that."

But other commissioners say that keeping their salaries tied to employees' provides checks and balances in the payment structure.

"Honestly, I think the system the way it's set up works real well," said Henry. "It doesn't get us into controversy in setting our own salaries. And it keeps us from worrying about a commission that may come along in the future and give themselves a raise."

Neither Mayor Jim Coppinger nor Chief Finance Officer Louis Wright said they had been briefed on any letter involving the salary structure.

Commissioners are paid an annual salary of $21,367, while the chairman is paid $27,913 and the vice chairman is paid $24,638.

WHISKEY

The second letter seeks lawmakers' support in changing state law to allow liquor to be manufactured in Hamilton County.

The Chattanooga Whiskey Co. has been lobbying county commissioners for several months to help them make liquor distillation legal inside county lines.

At an agenda meeting two weeks ago, over 100 Chattanooga Whiskey supporters packed the commission chambers while company leaders gave a presentation about how a distillery could boost the local economy.

Five commissioners have signed the letter, while four others either remain opposed or on the fence.

Commissioner Tim Boyd said he is refusing to sign the letter because it deals with a matter "that shouldn't even be in the county's hands."

"The county does not have a dog in this fight," he said. "If they want to lobby to change the law, they need to be lobbying [state Rep.] Gerald McCormick and [state Sen.] Bo Watson."

Commission Vice Chairman Fred Skillern said Monday he is still "making up my mind" on the issue. Commissioner Greg Beck -- who previously stated he was against allowing distilleries in the county -- has signed the letter. Attempts to reach Beck on Monday were unsuccessful.

Bankston said he is against distilleries for moral reasons.

"I've seen too many families torn up over alcohol," said Bankston. "And if you check with CADAS and Erlanger, you'll see that millions of taxpayer dollars have been directly spent to deal with alcohol-related problems."

Though liquor already is sold in stores and served in restaurants in Hamilton County, Bankston said he'll limit alcohol any way possible.

"I didn't have a vote in those, but I do have a vote in this, and my vote is no," said Bankston.

Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at kharrison@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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