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Hamilton County Commissioner Greg Martin

Hamilton County commissioners are talking about changes to their expense accounts that would move up to $17,400 in travel and phone costs to the commission budget and free up $1,200 to $1,500 a year apiece for reimbursements or discretionary spending.

Chairman Sabrena Smedley said at Wednesday's agenda session the $12,500-per-commissioner cap on expenses won't change if the group approves several proposed policy tweaks next week.

And she objected to Commissioner Greg Martin's characterization of the changes — one of which would let commissioners pay for rental offices in their districts out of their travel accounts — as "growing government."

"I think most of us up here try to take a conservative approach," Smedley said. "That's a scary word for me, 'grow government.'"

Martin was the only one to object to a pair of proposed resolutions related to commission spending.

One will revise the commission's existing travel policy to cut out language saying public money could be used only to rent office space in public buildings, and one moved the cellphone bills from travel accounts to the overall commission budget.

Commissioners talked about office space extensively in committee two weeks ago, Smedley reminded them. There's no office space available in county buildings, and though Smedley takes calls and meets constituents in her realty business, not all commissioners have personal office space.

As for the cellphones, finance administrator Al Kiser said at the committee meeting some commissioners use county phones and the county's phone plan, paid out of the commission budget. The change pays $100 a month for commissioners, and $125 a month for the chairperson and vice chairperson, from the commission budget rather than travel accounts.

Martin said he doesn't get why commissioners should need to rent space to see the people they represent.

"Most times I meet with constituents at Karl's [Family Restaurant in Hixson], Panera, a driveway or a home, or over a ditch that's flooding," Martin said. "I've got a problem with this idea of trying to grow government, I guess."

He also objected to part of the travel policy that allows commissioners to carry over travel money and use it for discretionary spending in the next year.

He asked Kiser, "Do we have other agencies, departments, constitutional officers or the mayor's office, the finance office, any other that is allowed to take money that is not used and roll it over to the next year for a particular purpose?"

"Very seldom," Kiser replied, adding that leftover money in other offices goes back into the fund balance.

"That makes more sense to me," Martin said. "We should be like them. I would rather see us have this money go back into the general fund like every other county office."

He reminded the group members they rejected a proposal earlier this year to double their travel allowance for the current fiscal year.

"I don't understand. We didn't do it at budget time, why do it now?" Martin said.

Commissioner Warren Mackey, who favored the proposed travel budget increase, called office space a legitimate need, and he warned without naming names against "trying to be the most conservative person in the room...to win points with the public."

"Some of you may feel comfortable going to people's homes to meet. I don't," Mackey said. "I'm going to meet them in a secure place, a recognizable place, but meet them in a car, meet them in a back parking lot? I'm not going to do it."

Mackey also backed the second resolution, which would use $6,000 from the commission's $801,346 budget to pay for travel by whichever commissioner represents the body in state and national associations.

That resolution was handed out two weeks ago to commissioners but not placed on the meeting agenda given to the public Wednesday.

Mackey has represented the commission for years in the Tennessee County Commissioners Association and serves on its board. He's also on the board of the National Association of County Officials. Tim Boyd recently was appointed to represent the commission, but Mackey will stay on those boards as a past president.

According to county commission records, Mackey spent $4,557 in 2017-18 on travel to the County Officials Association, the 2017 NACo conference, the National Association of Counties conference and the Tennessee County Services Association.

He said those memberships are important and cited an example. As TCCA chairman, he said, "I stacked the deck" to engineer a change in the Basic Education Program, the state's school funding formula, to transfer less money from wealthier counties to poorer ones.

"As a result of that millions of dollars are staying in Hamilton County. I think it's money well spent."

He said such official travel used to come out of the commission budget and should again.

"I want my account made whole," Mackey said.

Vice Chairman Randy Fairbanks objected to Martin's statement, as well.

"We're sitting here talking about expenses that we have approved...and then we have that rhetoric: 'Look at us up here, we're trying to grow government.'

"That's rhetoric for the paper...That's a slap in my face. I'm not a grow-government type of guy," Fairbanks said. "We have $12,500 to spend. When it's gone, it's gone."

As chairman last year, Fairbanks spent $5,189 on travel to the Tennessee Governor's Conference and to four TCSA and NACo events.

Boyd spent $3,544 that year on TCSA and NACo trips. Boyd was absent Wednesday, the first day of his trial on felony extortion charges arising from his bitter primary election campaign earlier this year.

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416.

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