Hamilton County Commissioners Clash Over A Resolution That, If It Becomes State Law, Would Allow Commissioners To Set Their Own Salaries With Only 5 Votes In Favor.
“If some later Commission, or if this Commission, wanted to lower the pay to $200 a meeting or raise the pay to $70,000 a year, five votes could do that if this particular resolution becomes a state law.” – Commissioner Greg Martin
Hamilton County, TN – During the Hamilton County Recessed Meeting yesterday, February 10th, Commissioners clashed over a resolution to end salary ties between that of County employees, including the Mayor, and the salaries of the County Commissioners.
District 1 Commissioner Randy Fairbanks opened the discussion by referencing an online poll.
Fairbanks said, “Recently an online poll was done and the question was asked this way, ‘Should the law be changed to allow members of the county commission to set their own pay?’ And, of course, the poll said 93% said no.”
“That’s not what this resolution is doing,” Fairbanks said, “What this resolution does is just set in what form we will set our pay.”
In the other 94 counties in Tennessee, if the County Commissioners want to increase their pay, they must formally bring a resolution, have a motion that is seconded and then vote in an open meeting.
“Now what happened several years ago, this Commission, went to the State Legislature and got it changed for Hamilton County to change the way they set their pay,” Fairbanks said.
Fairbanks went on to explain that Hamilton County is the only county in Tennessee that requires that when a percentage raise is given to Hamilton County employees and the Mayor, that the County Commission automatically gets the same percentage pay increase.
“So, in effect, and this has been the way since I’ve been on the Commission, every time our employees in Hamilton County get a raise, we, as the Commissioners, get a raise, “Fairbanks said, “So what we’re doing, in effect, we raise our pay without publicly, in a meeting, making a motion and a second and voting on that in public.”
Attorney Rheubin Taylor pointed out a correction to the statement of Fairbanks, “When the present statute, that’s on the books, was acted on by the legislature, Hamilton County didn’t request that language. That was put in by the legislative body because the County Commissioners in Hamilton County certainly would not have wanted it tied in like that. They were surprised when that language came back like that.”
“What the language presently says is that if the County Commission and County Employees get a 5% raise, that same 5% is given to the Mayor,” Taylor said, “And you know the disparity in differences in those salaries. That language was put in there at that time.”
Fairbanks stated that the Commissioners that support the change to the current Resolution, “want to be like the other 94 counties and if we decide to raise our pay, we have to bring a resolution in front of this nine Commissioners, make a motion, second it, and vote to raise our pay. That’s what we’re doing here.”
District 4 Commissioner Warren Mackey stated, “We do have a State Senator and a couple of State Representatives who are willing to take this forward.”
“Let me make it clear to the Commissioners, a vote today “Yes” on this resolution is a vote to say if we raise our pay, we ought to do it in public, with a vote, so all our constituents can see if we’re voting “Yes” to raise our pay or “No” to raise our pay,” Fairbanks said.
Fairbanks closed by saying, “What do you think that the online poll percentage would have said if the online poll would have said this ‘When setting their pay, should the County Commission have to vote in public to do so?’
“I, dare say, think it would be 100% that would have said ‘Yes’, they have to vote in public,” Fairbanks said.
District 3 Council Member Greg Martin stated that raises for County Employees, the Mayor and the Commission are all discussed and voted on in public currently during the meeting when the budget is voted on by the County Commission.
Addressing Attorney Taylor, Martin said, “As a point of clarity, it takes six votes to send this to Nashville. If we decided we wanted to be like the other 94 counties, or at least a majority of them, and lower our pay to a couple of hundred dollars a meeting like a lot of other counties do, we could do that….and it would only take five votes.”
“Or contrary…is it not true that five votes on the Commission would be able to set the salary at whatever? If we wanted to do like Marion County or we wanted to do like Knox County or whatever we wanted to set it at, if those five votes were there then that’s what the salary would be. Am I wrong in that?”
Taylor answered with the statement, “It may be five because, as you know, you all passed the budget with five votes.”
Martin said, “That’s my point. If some later Commission, or if this Commission, wanted to lower the pay to $200 a meeting or raise the pay to $70,000 a year, five votes could do that if this particular resolution becomes a state law.”
Taylor acknowledged that was correct.
District 8 Commissioner Tim Boyd said in response to Martin’s earlier comment, “In the eleven budgets I have voted on, I do not recall one moment of deliberation pointing out the fact that voting on a budget is going to affect our pay if the Hamilton County Employees were getting a raise.”
“What I do recall is the media pointing it out to our constituents via their resources after the fact. So, it’s a little disingenuous to say that we have open deliberations about Commission salary and benefits packages when we’re approving a budget that has a County Employee raise in it which, by default, gives us an automatic raise if we approve the budget,” Boyd said.
Martin said, “I am extremely genuine in my statement and not being disingenuous at all. I think that maybe the lesson to this is that when we’re talking about raises in the future, let’s all of us do a better job of mentioning that going forward.”
Commissioner Warren stated, “No one is going to raise our pay to $70,0000. I’m going to take the lead and I’ll be the lightning rod for the public to attack if they want to. But, I’m going to push for increases in pay…My constituents, I’m sure yours too, they don’t look to you from 8 to 4, they look to you 24/7 and every place you go.”
“I’ve heard people say that they don’t want a pay raise because they are afraid that if they make an attractive salary, it may invite others to run against them. I wouldn’t operate out of fear and say ‘No’ to everything that comes this way,” Mackey said, “That’s not leadership. Leadership is realizing you are not going to satisfy everybody and saying no and trying to be the most Conservative person in the room is ridiculous.”
Commissioner Fairbanks stated, “So I want every one of us to understand that, if this stays in place, we cannot give our employees in Hamilton County a raise without giving ourselves a raise. We do not have that choice.”
Votes were taken and the resolution to send the Act to the State Legislature for approval passed with a vote of 6 to 3 in favor.
Commissioners Baker, Martin and Smedley voted against.
Attorney Taylor stated that the Commissioners can reconsider their votes, based on public feedback, should they choose to do so as long as the change is submitted before next Wednesday, February 17th, which is the deadline for new legislation to be presented to the Tennessee Legislature.
Taylor stated that this particular issue was presented to the State Legislature in 2015, using the exact same language and process as the Council Members are following this year.
“It used to be that the legislature required unanimous consent of all County Commissioners before they’d look at anything presented, now they have said six votes (is all that is required) to know that it will be passed if the legislature acts on it. This exact process was followed in 2015 with the exact same language. Although, it was pulled,” Taylor said.