AG opinion sought on county commissioners’ salary snafu

Victor Ashe, who as a state senator sponsored a 1975 law on county commission salaries, says the measure should have been repealed after an amendment to the state constitution that was approved two years later. But it’s still on the books and now may mean salary increases — and thousands of dollars in back pay – for county commissioners in Hamilton, Knox and Sullivan counties.

So reports the Times-Free Press:

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.

“It would seem to be an inapplicable law that needs to be repealed.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