Hamilton County commissioners this week scrambled to avoid giving themselves $4,000 raises. But it turns out they've been underpaying themselves for 37 years.
At commissioners' wishes, state Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, withdrew a bill Thursday that would have removed a 1999 amendment to state law that tied commission pay to the county mayor's salary.
But in fact, the commission not only amended the wrong law in 1991, they've been using the same wrong law to set their salaries since the commission was founded in 1978. And they are not the only ones.
The House Fiscal Review Committee determined that if the amendment in Tennessee Code Annotated 5-5-107 were removed, Hamilton County commissioners would be paid under a 1975 law, T.C.A. 8-24-115.
That law says salaries for commissioners in counties with 100,000 to 600,000 residents must be $25,000 or more. That group would include Davidson, Hamilton, Knox and Sullivan counties. Shelby County's population exceeded the limit in 1970.
Currently, Hamilton County commissioners are paid $21,368 a year.
Eddie Weeks, legislative librarian for the Tennessee General Assembly, said the 1975 law has never been changed.
County Attorney Rheubin Taylor, who was on that first County Commission in 1978, said commissioners set their pay at the first meeting at $3,600 a year.
He wasn't aware of the 1975 law until this week -- and neither were officials in the other three affected counties.
"The statue, it clearly says that, but nobody knew about it. And nobody's following it," Taylor said.
In fact, commissioners in Knox, Sullivan and Davidson counties all make less than Hamilton County commissioners, Taylor said.
"That's all I know about it. And nobody knows why nobody knew about it. It's in a different section of the code than all the other county items, maybe that has something to do with it," Taylor said.
Commissioners asked in February to untie their salary from the mayor's specifically so they would have to vote in public to increase their pay.
Commissioner Greg Beck, who drafted the letter to state delegates, said he was "ambivalent" over the pay issue. But if the commission has been using the wrong law, it should get on track -- and then some.
"If under the law I'm supposed to be making $25,000, I'd want back pay. I've been here 11 years," Beck said. "It doesn't give me an automatic raise, it gives me what I'm due."
Commissioner Joe Graham, the only commissioner who declined to sign the letter in February, said he doesn't know how the county should react to the pay revelation. And he doesn't much care.
"I don't have a move. I'm very happy with [commission pay] being tied to the mayor's pay. I'm not in it for the money. I'm in it for the community," Graham said.
Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at firstname.lastname@example.org, @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.