A quiet effort by Hamilton County commissioners last month to set their own pay scale has died a quiet death in the Tennessee General Assembly.
Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said he has pulled a bill that would have given local commissioners direct control over their salaries.
Eight of nine commissioners in February sent a letter asking local delegates to remove an exception in state law that ties Hamilton County commissioners' pay to the county mayor's salary. Only Commissioner Joe Graham declined to sign.
The intent was noble -- to make commissioners have to publicly vote to raise their own pay, like every other county in the state. However, their method drew criticism from good-government groups.
McCormick says that because of an unforeseen consequence, passage of the bill would have automatically given the commissioners a roughly $4,000 pay bump.
State law bases public officials' pay scales on county population -- commissioners in more-populous counties earn more.
The Hamilton County Commission's pay is set based on the county population in 1991, and the commissioners only get raises if the mayor does.
In fiscal 2014, commissioners' pay was $21,368 a year, with the chairman making $24,638. The county mayor made $151,006.
McCormick said ditching that exemption would reset their pay at current population numbers. And Hamilton County has grown a lot in 24 years.
"Commission pay for a county the size of Hamilton County would be a minimum of $25,000," McCormick said.
McCormick said he contacted some commissioners to tell them about the bump and they told him to pull the bill.
Sabrena Smedley said she wasn't looking for a raise.
"As far as I know, none of us was aware of that. We all thought all it would do is untie our pay from the mayor's. None of us was trying to sneak in a raise at all," Smedley said.
Commissioner Marty Haynes said the same.
"The point was ... we wanted to have this discussion publicly if we want to raise our pay going forward. I said, just kill it," Haynes said.
The whole ordeal has left Commissioner Greg Beck scratching his head.
He doesn't want the raise, but he does want to fix what he sees as the problem -- the 1999 amendment that exclusively bound Hamilton County Commission pay.
Beck says he wants lawmakers to figure out how to avoid the automatic raise based on population and bring Hamilton County commissioners' compensation method in line with the rest of the state.
"If commissioners told the state to take it off, if commissioners choose to be in handcuffs, so be it. I think I have more discipline than to go and vote myself a raise, but I don't want to handcuff myself and appear that I don't have discipline," Beck said. "It's just like saying, 'Tie my hands, Mommy, and keep me from going in the cookie jar.' It's just ludicrous."
McCormick said lawmakers could likely doctor the law this year, but he didn't want to rush a change this session.
Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at email@example.com, @glbrogdoniv on Twitter or at 423-757-6481.
This story was updated March 31. The amendment that bound commission pay was added in 1999, not 1991 as previously stated.