This story was updated Feb. 21, 2018, at 11:31 p.m. with more information.
Hamilton County commissioners wrangled for more than 40 minutes and took three votes Wednesday to pass a collective $70,000 raise for four judicial commissioners, then turned around and passed a $200 million bond issue unanimously with no questions.
The bond issue includes $110 million for school projects, $20 million for a jail expansion and $55 million to pay off a county line of credit, among other items.
The judicial commissioners, or magistrates, work at night and on weekends in the county jail setting bonds and issuing warrants during hours when General Sessions courts aren't in session.
For that, they're paid $65,000 a year, with a $5,000 bonus for the chief magistrate. In the past, they've been allowed to practice civil law on the side to boost their incomes, but the Administrative Office of the Courts set a new rule last year banning any outside practice.
So Commissioner Tim Boyd, chairman of the commission's Security and Corrections Committee, proposed magistrate pay be raised to $80,000 immediately, with $4,000 raises in each subsequent year until the pay reaches $92,000. The chief magistrate would get a 10 percent bonus. The magistrates also may participate in the county's health insurance and other benefit programs.
Boyd said the magistrates are considered judges but are paid far less than equivalent positions in the local juvenile court and in other major Tennessee cities.
Commissioners Jim Fields, Joe Graham and Greg Martin tried to persuade their colleagues against the raise, citing a need to study worker pay countywide and saying any raises should be considered during the annual county budget process, which is underway.
Fields said he'd asked Boyd for information on how much money the four magistrates would lose by not being able to practice on the side.
Boyd said that's irrelevant and an invasion of privacy.
"I'm not going to ask for their W-2s on their private income," he said. " ... I don't ask it of anyone else in the county and will not ask it of the magistrates."
Graham riposted, "When we're spending the taxpayers' money, whether it's $7, $70 or $7 million, it's relevant."
Prompted by questions from Fields, county Human Resources Director Alecia Poe said the magistrates were four salary grades behind where they should be. But she added she'd just gotten back a countywide pay study that shows pretty much the entire workforce is underpaid.
"We need to update our pay plan and increase the people who are not at the minimums where we need them to be. We're starting to have a severe applicant shortage in some positions," Poe said. " ... My recommendation was, if we're going to upgrade some, we should do all."
Commissioners got deeply entangled in thickets of parliamentary procedure as multiple nested motions were proposed and argued over.
"I can't believe there's more deliberation on this resolution than all the deliberations combined on a tax increase that's costing our county citizens over $20 million a year," Boyd said at one point. "This is incredible to me. Let's swallow a camel and spit out a gnat on a resolution that's going to have a total impact, as written, of less than $70,000 a year, including benefits."
Commissioner Warren Mackey forwarded a motion to table the resolution for further study — "we're trying to fix this on the fly," he said — but it was voted down 5-4. Mackey, Martin, Fields and Graham voted yes; commissioners Sabrena Smedley, Greg Beck, Chester Bankston, Boyd and Chairman Randy Fairbanks voted no.
Then Smedley made a motion to lower the proposed starting pay from $80,000 to $72,482, which would bring magistrates up to the proper salary level in the county pay plan. That failed on a 7-2 vote, with only Smedley and Bankston voting for it.
Finally, Boyd's original proposal came up and passed 6-3, with Fields, Graham and Martin opposed.
The pay raise won't take effect immediately because state law says judges can't get raises during their terms. Two magistrates will be up for appointment in May and can receive the raises then.
Poe's news about the new pay study left County Mayor Jim Coppinger rueful.
Though commissioners "showed a lot of courage" last year when they voted to raise revenues through a tax increase, that money is committed to school construction, a jail expansion and public safety, he said.
Nonetheless, Coppinger said, as the budget is being put together, "There's going to be a lot of people coming in asking for raises."
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at email@example.com or 423-7457-6416.