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Joe Graham
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Chester Bankston

At least some Hamilton County commissioners have not given up on disconnecting their pay from the county mayor's salary.

In 1999, county commissioners coupled their pay raises to that of the county mayor, meaning they have received a salary bump every time the mayor gets one, like when the commission approves cost-of-living raises or other increases for county employees in the annual budget. The Hamilton County Commission cannot otherwise change its pay.

The measure was passed through a private act that required the approval of state lawmakers. No other Tennessee county pays its commissioners this way.

Hamilton County commissioners make a base salary of $22,786.

On Wednesday, Commissioner Joe Graham brought up the issue as the commission wrapped up its weekly meeting, citing phone calls he had received from state legislators.

"It keeps coming up and it keeps coming up and it keeps coming up," Graham said.

Twice in 2015 — once in February and again in December — commissioners had the opportunity to sign a letter asking state legislators to give them control of their own pay. On both occasions, Commissioner Greg Beck, now the body's vice chairman, left a letter in the commission's private chambers but did not place it on a voting agenda.

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Graham was the only commissioner not to sign the first letter, and he brought the second letter's existence to light during a meeting, calling for a public discussion.

In September, the commission wrangled with how much extra money the commission chairperson and vice chairperson should earn in an attempt to reconcile a pair of contradictory pay rates: one established in a 1990 resolution and another adopted through a 1999 memo.

Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, said in a phone interview that commissioners had reached out to him.

"We've been talking about it for two years," Carter said. " I've received several calls on it, from all sides."

Carter would not name who had recently called him, stating it would be unfair for him to disclose those private conversations to the media.

Beck said he has not reached out to state lawmakers on the issue.

"That is water under the bridge for me," Beck said.

Chairman Chester Bankston said he was aware that some commissioners had talked to Carter, but did not identity them.

"I prefer not to comment at this time," Bankston said when asked if he spoke to Carter or other state lawmakers.

State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, said Hamilton County commissioners must have a public discussion and approve it with a super-majority vote if they want the Tennessee General Assembly to consider doing anything about their pay. That standard is the same for any county commission that wants to change a private act, he said.

Before they do that, commissioners really need to consider the long-reaching impact of enabling themselves to set their own pay scale, Gardenhire said.

"Changes to their pay will have a ripple effect on the county, the school board and other public officials whose salaries are based on the commission's pay," he said.

Graham asked the commissioners to think about leaving their salaries connected to the mayor's, but let voters decide in a referendum whether to increase the percentage of the mayor's salary they receive. He described the existing pay arrangement as "fair, transparent and impartial."

Commissioner Sabrena Smedley said she didn't "know exactly what brought the pay discussion up today, but I'll just say this publicly: I think the majority of us — we didn't run for this office for pay."

Other commissioners shared their thoughts on Graham's plan after the meeting.

Bankston and Beck said they did not believe Graham's proposed referendum could be used to overturn a private act.

"If we are going to address commissioner pay, let's get it out there and have guts enough to talk about it," Commissioner Tim Boyd said, bucking Graham's idea and instead calling for the commission to have a serious conversation about how much the job should pay if it's going to take any action at all.

The reason to do the job is to serve your community and make positive change, Boyd said.

"I am satisfied the system we have in place is efficient and sustainable," Commissioner Greg Martin said. "If we are going to put something on a referendum, I would rather it be taxes and not commissioner pay."

Contact staff writer Paul Leach at 423-757-6481 or pleach@times freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @pleach_tfp.

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