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Randy Fairbanks
Hamilton County commissioners voted Wednesday to ask that state lawmakers sever their pay from that of other county employees — meaning they could set their own salaries.

If the General Assembly approves the request, commissioners argued, discussion about their personal compensation will become more public and no longer hidden in the annual budget process if raises are approved for county employees and the mayor.

"We voted ourselves a raise last budget time, but we didn't discuss that up here," said Commissioner Randy Fairbanks. "The reason I'm supporting this is that if the commission's pay is raised it needs to be discussed here in public instead of hiding behind the raises we give the [county's] employees."

Though Wednesday's vote was public, commissioners previously tried to collect the six signatures needed to make the request in private, as a letter was placed on a table in the commission office waiting for signatures.

Last week, Commissioner Joe Graham waved a copy of that letter from the dais, saying he thought it should be read publicly, and state lawmakers agreed.

On Wednesday, Graham said previous commissioners told him they voted to tie their pay to county employees in 1999 as a way of being transparent and fair. Graham said he was told that decision was wise, as it prevents commissioners from ever having to vote on their own salaries by giving everyone working for the county the same percentage raise.

Graham said the current budget process is transparent and the public knows when raises are being given, saying there is no need for change.

He and Commissioner Jim Fields were the only ones to vote against the resolution, and Commissioner Marty Haynes abstained from the vote.

At the end of Wednesday's meeting, Commissioner Greg Beck said he had an announcement for the commission.

Leaving his seat at the dais, he walked to a podium in front, where he was joined by Commissioners Warren Mackey and Sabrena Smedley.

Beck read aloud each line of last week's Times Free Press story about the Hamilton County Board of Education's discussion on whether or not to support the use of discretionary funds to build new bathrooms at East Hamilton Middle-High School, replacing existing portable toilets.

The article states the board was informed at the meeting that the visitors' bleachers at Tyner and Howard are unsafe and need to be condemned.

Beck said the school board has an "insufficient level of awareness," because he and many in the community have been saying Howard and Tyner are in need of new stadiums for years. He also criticized the school system for not maintaining the stadiums.

Continuing to read the article aloud, Beck stopped at a quote by school board Chairman Jonathan Welch.

Welch said at the meeting, as reported in the story, he was having a hard time accepting discretionary funds for bathrooms at East Hamilton Middle-High School when the district has "needs [elsewhere] that are much more basic."

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Commissioner Greg Beck

Beck asked the commission if anyone in the room knew what the word "discretion" meant, and then clarified the funds were to be given away at his discretion — not the school board's.

He said the commission may not know the needs of the district, and that he has been asking to know those needs with no response from the school board.

After Beck finished reading the article, Smedley, standing beside him, said she hopes the school board and commission will continue working together.

She clarified that Beck's discretionary bond funds, which can be used on school construction projects, were not depleted by her swapping $34,000 of that money with her own discretionary funds, which cannot be used on schools.

The school board is set to vote today on whether to accept Smedley's discretionary money designated for the bathrooms.

Smedley said if the school board does not accept the money she will see if "there is any other way I can get this [project] done."

"The funds will not go to Tyner and Howard, and they will stay in District 7," Smedley said.

After listening to the audio recording of the meeting, Welch said he does not understand why the County Commission requested the school board vote to accept the discretionary funds if it does not want the school board to question how the money is spent.

"Why are we being asked to vote to approve this if we don't have any say over the spending of these tax dollars?" Welch asked.

Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at kendi.anderson@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow on twitter @kendi_and.

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