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Hamilton County Commissioner Joe Graham speaks during the Wednesday morning meeting of the Hamilton County Commission.
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Commissioner Greg Beck

A new letter aimed at allowing Hamilton County commissioners to set their own pay — the second this year — is lying on a table in the commission offices awaiting signatures.

How many signatures it might gather, after a strong hint from the county's legislative delegation that commissioners should have that discussion in public rather than by letter in a back room, remains to be seen.

The letter's existence got out Wednesday when Commissioner Joe Graham waved a copy from the dais, and commissioners renewed a debate over pay that began in February.

That's when the first letter was laid out for commissioners to sign if they favored rewriting salary rules for their posts.

Since 1999, commission pay raises have been tied to those of the county mayor and employees. If there's a countywide raise, commissioners get the same percentage, and they don't have to hold a separate vote to boost their own pay.

In fiscal 2014, commissioners' pay was $21,368 a year, with the chairman making $24,638. The county mayor made $151,006.

Commissioner Greg Beck said in February and again Wednesday he thinks the commission should cut those ties.

"It's time to change the way we structure the way we do our pay connected with the mayor's pay," Beck said, adding that the February effort had been misunderstood.

"We didn't say anything about a pay raise," Beck said.

Elsewhere, commission pay is based on county population under state law. Based on that, commissioners would be paid at least $25,000, House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, a Chattanooga Republican, said earlier this year.

Beck also spoke to challenges about that February letter being a "back-room" or "secret" deal that sought a raise.

Beck said he left the letter — drafted for possible presentation to state lawmakers — on a table in the commission's private chambers for any commissioner to review and sign. He said he intended to publicly introduce the letter when it was his turn to speak during the meeting, but Graham's turn to speak came first and Beck said he didn't get to introduce it before it wound up in discussion.

"What we've got is the cart before the horse," Beck said.

Commissioner Sabrena Turner-Smedley said she thought the idea behind the letter had nothing to do with voting themselves a raise but was about separating salary rules for the commission and mayor's office.

County Attorney Rheubin Taylor noted the way the pay works now is that a 3 percent raise for county employees or commissioners would also result in a 3 percent raise for the mayor.

"Therefore a 3 percent [raise] to the commissioner salary is far less than 3 percent to the mayor's salary," Taylor said. "All you're asking is that pairing or coupling be severed so that it does not automatically transfer from one to the other."

Graham, who didn't sign the February letter, said he felt the document should be read formally into the commission record to avoid any appearance of secrecy. And he asked Chairman Chester Bankston to make him a copy of the new letter once all the commissioners who want to have affixed their signatures.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton @timesfreepress.com or twitter.com/BenBenton or www.facebook.com/ben.benton1 or 423-757-6569.

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