The Letcher County Fiscal Court will start the new year with two possibly controversial proposals following two separate requests at the December court meeting.
Shannon Smith of the American Heart Association and Sherry Stidham appeared before the court with a request that the court consider amending its 2006 Anti- Smoking Ordinance to include vaping, or e-cigarettes.
E-cigarettes are very similar to cigarettes in their use, but contain liquid, which is heated electrically to produce smoke. Vaping has become extremely popular among young people and has been extensively marketed to them with flavors like bubblegum and various fruit flavors. Several deaths were recently attributed to vaping, but in these incidences, the vape products being ingested were tainted or incorrectly applied in an effort to ingest cannabis or other substances.
However, an increase in scientific studies of vaping, which began before the recent incidences, have shown that young people who vape or use e-cigarettes do cause considerable long-term damage to their lungs and other parts of their respiratory system. Studies conducted by the Center on Addiction and other agencies have shown that vaping can cause damage to the brain, heart, and lungs, cause cancerous tumor development, and cause preterm deliveries and stillbirths in pregnant women. And they show that all these effects are amplified for younger users. There are harmful effects to brain and lung development when use occurs during pregnancy or adolescence.
Smith told the court that nicotine is a powerful drug and extremely addictive, and that presently, about one in three high school students vape or use e-cigarettes. Kentucky has a high rate of nicotine addiction and e-cigarettes and vape pipes are just nicotine delivery devices. The deeper inhalation and large volume of vapor taken into the lungs increases the amount of nicotine taken in and the damage that is done. Smith asked that the use of e-cigarettes and vaping devices be included in the county’s smoking ordinance, which forbids smoking in public buildings.
Judge/Executive Terry Adams told Smith he believes that young people have been targeted for sales of vape products and e-cigarettes, and said that all the damage hasn’t really been determined. He said he supports adding an amendment to the smoking ordinance and will ask County Attorney Jamie Hatton to draft an amendment for the January meeting, where the court will discuss and vote on it. While the original ordinance restricts smoking in public buildings, it does not set an age limit.
Later in the meeting a related issue rose when Letcher County Jailer Bert Slone gave the Jail Report. As Slone discussed the jail commissary, which provides sundries to inmates that are not distributed by the jail, he said one of the commissary’s biggest sellers is electronic cigarettes, In a later conversation with The Mountain Eagle, Slone said that vaping devices come in all shapes and sizes, have batteries, and can be dangerous. However, e-cigarettes are like regular cigarettes and are not dangerous. He also said that tensions among inmates seemed to be reduced after the commissary started to sell e-cigarettes. Slone said if the ordinance includes the jail, not only will it cut the commissary’s returns by at least half, it could very possibly increase tension between prisoners, and with prisoners and guards. He added that prisoners use e-cigarettes in their own cells.
The funds realized from commissary sales are used for a variety of things to benefit the overall climate at the jail, for inmate health, and to help fund jail work release, which helps the budget in a cash strapped county. Commissary funds pay the salaries of the guards who accompany work release inmates offsite. They pay for fuel for vehicles that transport inmates on work release to do various work including weed-eating, clean-up and other things around the county. Commissary funds pay for the equipment inmates use on work release such as weed-eaters, chainsaws and other tools. A pharmacy tech who puts prescriptions together and monitors them for inmates is paid from commissary funds as well. Slone said that in the past, guards, with little or no medical experience have performed that task.
Slone told the court he will abide by whatever decision it makes but it could create some problems for the jail. Judge Adams said he is sympathetic to Slone’s dilemma, but Hatton said that the way the ordinance is currently written, if an amendment is added, it includes the jail under the term public buildings and simply excluding it may be difficult. Slone also reported that as of December 1, the Commissary Fund contains $127,019.97.
Letcher County resident David Johnson, who identified himself as a militia member and a “Constitutionalist”, addressed the court to express his concerns with Red Flag Laws. Red Flag Laws are state laws that authorize courts to issue a special type of protection order, allowing the police to temporarily confiscate firearms from people who are deemed by a judge to be a danger to themselves or to others.
Johnson said he believes that Red Flag Laws pose a threat to the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights, which states, “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” The language has created a good deal of debate and litigation about the exact purpose of the amendment, including exactly what a “well-regulated militia” is and how far gun rights extend.
Johnson said he believes Red Flag Laws are illegal and the county needs to pass a resolution of support for the Second Amendment. However, in 2016, Judge Adams, then Second District Magistrate, introduced a resolution of support for the Second Amendment and it was passed. Adams said he will look at the resolution before taking any action.
The proper term for Red Flag Laws is Extreme Risk Laws. Seventeen states and the District of Columbia have all passed Extreme Risk Laws and, according to the Brady Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, 75 percent of registered gun owners support them. Under current federal law, a person is prevented from having a firearm only if they fall into one of several narrow categories, such as being convicted of certain crimes, or having been adjudicated as mentally ill or committed involuntarily to a psychiatric hospital. The Everytown for Gun Safety organization states on its website that Extreme Risk Laws help to fill this gap, protecting public safety and allowing people in crisis the chance to obtain the help they need.
Extreme Risk Laws have generated a good deal of controversy on both federal and state levels. President Donald Trump initially said he would support Red Flag Laws and background checks following several shooting incidences this past summer. Then in August, Trump gave in to pressure from gun support groups, and said he would leave gun regulation up to Congress. In Virginia, a number of counties have proposed ordinances similar to the one in existence in Letcher County supporting the Second Amendment. None of these ordinances affect federal or state laws, which take precedence over county ordinances, but they are widely seen as expressions of support for gun rights.
In other business, the court passed several budgets for the coming year. The members voted to approve the 2020 Budget for the Letcher County Court Clerk’s office for revenues of $5,814,179 against expenditures of $5,810,654. The court also approved a budget for the county court clerk office’s salaries and benefits of $585,425.22. Judge Adams expressed his concerns that vehicle taxes from Letcher County residents who buy a vehicle in another county or state are not being returned to the county even if the buyer asks for it. He said it is important for the county’s tax base. County Court Clerk Winston Meade said there have been problems in Pike County and Perry County but he believes they have been resolved.
Letcher County Sheriff Mickey Stines and Deputy Lashawna Frazier, who handles financial matters for the sheriff ’s office, presented the Sheriff ’s 2020 Budget and the budget for deputies’ salaries. The budget is for income of $787,700 against expenditures of $787,650 and a maximum for deputies’ salaries and benefits of $461,618. Stines also asked for the court to make its customary loan of $20,000 to the department to cover expenses until tax receipts start coming in. Kentucky law requires that sheriff ’s departments begin each calendar year with a zero balance in their accounts and the loan is necessary to pay salaries and basic expenses. The court voted unanimously to approve both budgets and to approve the $20,000 loan, which will be repaid within six months.
In a related matter, the court also approved a request from Stines to declare four Dodge Chargers and one Ford Crown Victoria as surplus and sell them at auction. When the auction date is set, the sheriff’s office will announce it.
The court conducted its annual acceptance of bids for services. Bids were awarded to low bidders, but factors such as proximity to the county, past performance, and other things were taken into account as well. The bid for anti-freeze, motor oil, and diesel fuel was awarded to Childers Oil. The bid for metal culverts was awarded to Action Auto in Van in Letcher County. The bid for plastic culvert was also awarded to Action Auto. The bid for hauling crushed limestone was awarded to Letcher County trucking company J.J. Bates and the bid for providing crushed limestone was awarded to Martin Marietta of Gordon. There were no bids for asphalt.
Greg Hale Construction of Letcher County, along with Vindicated Construction of Mayking, Brooks Electric, and N.C. Bailey Construction of Neon were awarded the bid for electrical services. All had bids of $30 per hour. Bids for refrigeration were rejected, and the court decided to bid concrete by the job because of so many variables in each job. Greg Hale also received the bid for plumbing services at $30 per hour. Vindicated of Mayking was awarded the bid for carpentry services at $28 per hour. In all instances, if the winning bidder is unable to perform a particular job due to being occupied or for other reasons, other bidders will be consulted.
The court voted unanimously to place a sign dedicating Hanna Drive off Hwy. 1148 to PFC Charlie Sexton, U.S. Army. It also voted to add more public cemetery roads to the County Road List. These include Stallard Clay Cemetery Road, Ison Cemetery Road, Yonts Cemetery Road, Adams Cemetery Road in Thornton, Hampton Branch Cemetery, Jones Morgan Cemetery Road, Blane Combs Cemetery Road, Goble Watts Cemetery Road, Fred Watts Cemetery Road, Eldridge Cemetery Road, and Havens Rest Cemetery Road.
Bank balances for county agencies as of November 30:
• General Fund: $824,084.58
• Road and Bridge Fund: $637,678.88
• Jail Fund: $75,790.78
• LGEA Fund: $413,892,54
• Senior Citizens Fund: $228.90
• Forestry Fund: $18,364.20
Total of all Funds: $1,970,039.88