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Commissioner pay in four affected counties

County // Number of Commissioners // Salary
Davidson* // 39 // $15,000
Hamilton // nine // $21,902
Knox // 11 // $20,282, plus $3,900 travel expenses
Sullivan // 24 // $7,650
* Davidson County is part of the metropolitan government of Nashville and has a Metropolitan Council, not a county commission.

Depending on what Tennessee's top attorney says, Hamilton County taxpayers may have to give more than $4 million in back pay to the county's 44 current and former commissioners.

And it might all be because of a 37-year-old oversight.

Hamilton County Attorney Rheubin Taylor said he's writing state lawmakers to ask Attorney General Herbert Slatery III to settle a question about what part of state law set the commission's salaries here. The answer could mean a $4,000-a-year difference to current commissioners plus, possibly, a chunk of change in back pay.

The law in use now in Hamilton County dates back to 1978. It sets salaries at $3,600 a year, with discretion for increases. After 37 years, and several legislative actions, rank-and-file commissioners now are paid $21,902 annually.

A recently discovered 1975 law says they -- along with Knox and Sullivan counties -- should have been making $25,000 the whole time.

A salary of $25,000 in 1975 had the same buying power as about $109,071 in today's terms, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

But the man who wrote that law said Wednesday it was meant for three commissioners who were running an entire county government, and was never intended for perpetuity.

Victor Ashe, former Knoxville mayor, Tennessee senator and U.S. ambassador, said the 1975 law was only meant for three special commissioners in Knox County, and should have gone away in 1978.

"We had a hyphenated government. We had a county judge and a quarterly court that set the tax rates, and a three-member commission that ran day-to-day government. There was a roads commissioner, a welfare commissioner and a finance commissioner," Ashe said Wednesday.

The legislation, which he sponsored as a state senator along with then-Rep. Sandra Clark, was tailored for Knox County, the only one at the time with "county commissioners." Davidson County had already formed a metropolitan government with Nashville, and the others had county councils or quarterly courts.

And according to Ashe, the 1975 law should have gone away when county governments across the state were revamped by a constitutional convention. But that didn't happen.

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Hamilton County Commission meets in this file photo.

"It would seem to be an inapplicable law that needs to be repealed. It's irrelevant in today's Tennessee," he said.

The 1975 law was found after local commissioners quietly asked for their pay to be made independent of the county mayor's salary. Lawmakers later pulled that request, citing the fiscal impact of the 1975 law.

But the Hamilton County Commission's longest-serving current commissioner, Greg Beck, said Tuesday that he wants his 11 years of back pay.

He asked Taylor Wednesday to write the letter.

When asked, the attorney general's office provides legal opinions to the governor, constitutional officers, members of the general assembly and other state officials.

"It's incumbent upon us to find out how much we are supposed to get paid. [The delegation representatives] aren't doing it," Beck said.

Back pay for Beck dating from 2005 would be $48,827. Commissioners in Knox and Sullivan counties would come under the same rule, although historical commissioner salary data was not available forthose counties Wednesday.

It was unclear Wednesday if members of other county commissions have requested an opinion on the pay issue. Attorney general spokeswoman Leigh Ann Jones said the office treats such requests as privileged information.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at, @glbrogdoniv on Twitter or at 423-757-6481.