Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Beck says he and other commissioners deserve more money.

After a Tennessee attorney general's opinion that commissioners are not entitled to years of back pay or a salary increase, Beck said Wednesday he plans to seek another opinion.

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Herbert Slatery, along with 14 other state attorneys general, signed a letter urging legislation be advanced to protect the tax-exempt status of religious entities if they refuse to conduct same-sex nuptials.

"It's like going to the doctor. You don't just get one opinion," Beck said. "You don't take one opinion on anything unless it is God."

Beck was reacting to the opinion released Tuesday by Attorney General Herbert Slatery III, who said commissioners are not entitled to back pay under state law.

The pay question arose in February when commissioners asked to untie their salaries from the county mayor's, which would allow them to vote on their own pay scale. The request was set aside in March when commissioners realized they may have been victims of a 37-year-old oversight that could entitle them to thousands of dollars in back pay and higher salaries.

The mistake goes back to 1978, when the commission was founded and the first to serve in the positions used the wrong law to set salaries. Tennessee Code Annotated 8-24-115 set salaries for commissioners in counties with 100,000 to 600,000 residents at a minimum of $25,000 a year. But commissioners here used a different section of law to set their compensation and now are paid $21,902 each per year.

The mistake could have cost local taxpayers more than $4 million in back pay to 44 current and former commissioners. As a commissioner since 2005, Beck's share would have been $48,827.

County Attorney Rheubin Taylor asked Slatery for an opinion on what law sets the commission's salaries.

Slatery said T.C.A. 8-24-115 does not apply to Hamilton County because the General Assembly intended that law to refer only to "a county commission form of government."

And despite the common reference to the nine elected Hamilton County representatives as "county commissioners," the true form of Hamilton County government under law is a county executive (now mayor) and legislative body called the "board of county commissioners," the opinion stated.

Slatery did not explain the difference in his opinion, and Taylor did not return calls for comment Wednesday.

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Commissioner Joe Graham

Officials with the University of Tennessee's County Technical Assistance Service said they also could not explain the difference without researching the issue.

Commissioner Joe Graham has said for months that commissioners should not be concerned with cushioning their salaries, and he said Wednesday that he appreciates the attorney general's clarity on the matter.

"It is time for everyone to move on," Graham said.

But Beck disagrees, and he said the commission will find another option to increase its annual pay.

"If the attorney general gave us an opinion, we'll probably go according to that opinion," Beck said. "But then we will go back to the drawing board and ask that we be disconnected from the mayor's salary."

There was no discussion about the attorney general's opinion during Wednesday's County Commission meeting, but Beck said it definitely will be a topic of discussion at the next meeting.

Contact staff writer Kendi Anderson at or 423-757-6592.