Sheriff candidates, Humphrey respond to questions

Published 4:25 pm Friday, July 27, 2018

With the general election for the county less than a week away, candidates for the mayor and sheriff positions in Carter County stopped by the Elizabethton Star this week to fill out a questionnaire about the election involving different issues. Candidates for mayor that participated were Republican nominee Rusty Barnett and incumbent Leon Humphrey, who is running a write-in campaign. Candidates for sheriff that participated were Republican Dexter Lunceford and Independent Steve Stevenson. All candidates that participated were asked to fill out a questionnaire inside the conference room with a one-hour time limit. Each response was checked for grammar and punctuation. There was also a 250-word count per response by each candidate. Included are the responses from Humphrey, Lunceford and Stevenson. Barnett participated in the exercise but asked for his answers to be omitted from print.


Republican candidate Dexter Lunceford 

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Question 1: What do you consider the biggest challenges facing the Sheriff’s Department, and what are your plans to fix them?

As always the issue will continue to be trying to provide the services our citizens deserve without creating an undue burden on the taxpayers. What I have done for four years in increasing the effectiveness of the Sheriff’s Office by finding a funding mechanism for any new services or equipment. The last example is the keeping of federal inmates. We entered into an agreement with the US Marshals to keep federal inmates. The current state rate for state inmates is $39.00 per day, no mileage, no medical under $1000.00 and no reimbursement of manpower. The federal authorities have agreed to pay $60.00 plus mileage, plus manpower, plus all medical. This will equate to about $500,00.00 additional dollars the Commission has agreed to place into a reserve account for us to use. We will be able to replace a 40-year-old radio system, an antiquated records management system, both of which desperately need to be replaced without asking the citizens for more money. This approach has allowed me to increase services without an increase in my budget (this does not include small increases in things I can’t control like insurance and inmate medical issues). The end effect of providing better equipment, more officers (we have increased officers assigned to patrol by 40%), and better training over the last four years has been an approximately 23% reduction in crime.

Question 2: The abuse of opioid drugs is prevalent in rural Appalachian counties. In your opinion, what are the ways in which a sheriff’s department can counteract the growth of the epidemic?

It will take a combination of things to help with the opioid problem. Legislation, which is being accomplished. Education, we have to teach the next generation not to rely so heavily on pain medication. To help with this I placed the DARE program back into our schools. Enforcement, I created a Counter-Drug Unit with the city of Elizabethton. This is a five-man drug unit that works in conjunction with the DEA, ATF, and US Marshals to confidentially fight the drug dealers in our county. They are extremely effective. Last year they made 306 drug arrests and seized approximately 1 million dollars worth of drugs. Part of this is keeping drug investigations confidential, because to move up the chain, so to speak, you can’t let everyone know what you are doing. That is why we don’t plaster drug investigations all over the media. It would be self-serving to me, but make this Unit ineffective. We try to move these investigations into the federal courts, which can give much longer sentences. If you will look around your community several of our drug dealers are missing…they are in federal prisons awaiting life sentences. Remember that these investigations take a lot of resources and time to bring to a close.

Question 3: What do you consider the benefits and negatives of housing federal inmates at the Carter County Correctional Facility?

Benefits of housing federal inmates as I stated above are monetary. There are no negatives. We have the available space. They are pre-trial and I assure you they are no more dangerous than the inmates we are housing for child rape and murder on the stateside. It is absolutely a win-win.

Independent candidate  Steve Stevenson 

Question 1: What do you consider the biggest challenges facing the Sheriff’s Department, and what are your plans to fix them?

The biggest challenges currently facing the Sheriff’s Office are:

1. Lack of effective drug fighting strategy. The current model of tying up a few Deputies on what the Sheriff considers “big fish” investigations allows all of the other dealers to continue to deal drugs openly throughout the county. Fighting the drug problem will be my number one priority as Sheriff. I will not engage in politically motivated “drug roundups” that coincide with election date. The solution is to actually use existing professional techniques to fight these drugs as well as totally changing the focus from big fish to every fish. The current model of relying on small drug unit to handle a huge problem is counter productive. I will increase the size of the unit and do more inter-agency cooperation. In addition, the entire Sheriff’s Office, not just the Drug Unit will be part of the overall response to this issue. I will also be increasing the size and capabilities of the Reserve Deputy program as well as soliciting the assistance of our Constables in this battle that we will be facing together as a community. As a community, we will have to embrace the “community policing” concept and break this cycle of drugs through youth outreach and youth protection types of programs.

2. Employee retention: I am going to seek out grants and other methods of increasing the CCSO employees salaries. In addition, I will be creating a no nepotism policy and a fair promotional system that is based on merit.

Question 2: The abuse of opioid drugs is prevalent in rural Appalachian counties. In your opinion, what are the ways in which a sheriff’s department can counteract the growth of the epidemic?

Currently there have been several laws passed and proposed to help States and communities deal with this epidemic. It is going to take some time for these laws to limit the amount and availability of these drugs as well as how they are prescribed. Drug dealers have to actually know that their Sheriff’s Office knows about their activities and to actually feel heat from the intense focus of the agency pursuing them. This is not the case now and that is why drug dealers do not fear arrest in our county. A newly trained and larger Drug fighting agency (not just a unit) will have a much greater impact on the supply side of this epidemic. We have to save the next generation and provide a way out for our youth who grow up in homes where drugs are abused. That is where “Community Policing” and youth protection are vital in breaking the drug culture cycle. The third leg of this problem also involves an all hands on deck community approach to helping folks get off of drugs and getting their lives back. As Sheriff, I will work with the Courts system, rehab organizations, Churches, Charities and groups like Recovering Soldier Ministry to get these folks pointed in the right direction. We can’t give up on these citizens, they are our family, our friends and our neighbors. Having said that, victims of crime due to drugs have rights as well and crime against them will be prosecuted.

Question 3: What do you consider the benefits and negatives of housing federal inmates at the Carter County Correctional Facility?

The obvious benefit of housing Federal Inmates is the potential income that it could bring into the county coffers and hiring a few more employees to create a few jobs. Beyond that, there is much more liability involved with this process particularly in the last four years. The jail was built as a “direct supervision” facility. When the Sheriff took over the jail, he began running it as an “indirect supervision” type of jail despite recommendations from CTAS to be a direct supervision facility. In January of 2016 double murder inmate Eric Azotea was able to carve his way through a cinder block wall and escape his maximum security cell. Increasing the number of Federal and State inmates and locking them down 23 hours a day is a recipe for escapes, bad behavior and idle damage caused to the jail by inmates not being supervised. I have received countless complaints from citizens who tell me that our local citizens have been in 23/1 lock down for months. Many believe that our citizens have to suffer this because of the Federal inmate program. Seventy five (75%) of all of our jail re-inspections in the last 10 years have occurred just in the last four years and under this Sheriff. Constantly using our jailers to transport inmates to Greeneville cost us massive amounts of overtime and is wearing out our employees. It was noted on the recent Jail Inspection that we have had 46 new hires since the last annual inspection.


Write-In Candidate Leon Humphrey 

Question 1: What do you believe are the two pressing issues affecting Carer County and how would you address them. 

Currently Carter County has a declining population. The 2010 census data compared to the 2016 projected numbers suggest that the population is down by approximately 922. The population is aging with a mortality rate of approximately 13 percent. Also, our youth are leaving at alarming rates to take jobs in other areas. The problem is that our leaders have failed to aggressively market our beautiful area and have not invested in purchasing and developing land to be used for economic and industrial development.

I created the mayor’s office of economic and community development in 2016. Since, my staff and I have worked aggressively to write and secure grant funding to market all the wonderful natural assets in our area. I am convinced that a marketing campaign through social media will result in many new folks being attracted to our area which will ultimately want to move their families here. This will in turn reverse the negative population trend and broaden our tax base.

I have been and will continue to work diligently with TVA, Tennessee ECD and others to identify parcels of land that can be developed for industrial use. These are more long term in that it will take several years after an actual purchase to get them site ready with all the necessary infrastructure in place so that they are marketable. Prospective business owners are not looking for cow pastures.

Question 2: One of the hot button issues that was brought up was looking at the possibility of downsizing the County Commission. Is this something you are for? Why or why not? 

I absolutely agree with downsizing the commission. Shelby County, Knox and Hamilton counties have 13-9 commissioners. The commissioners in these counties represent many more citizens than the total population of Carter County which is just over 56,000. I am in favor of having no more than 9 commissioners however will accept a reduction from the 24 to 16. Large government is totally inefficient government.

Currently there are virtually no minimum requirements for these important offices. If McDonald’s requires some minimum requirements as to education and or work experience should not those folks that are serving on the board of directors for the largest corporation in the county. Keep in mind, commissioners have the responsibility of managing 75+ million of our hard earned tax dollars annually.

Question 3: What will you do to encourage economic development in Carter County? 

I have worked diligently to promote economic and community development since taking office. Was the driving force behind the creation of a new and compliant Joint Economic and Community Development Board. Just one of the successes of this board and the efforts of the Mayor’s Office of Economic and Community Development was the procurement of a hotel feasibility study. The study was presented to a hotel chain and local investor developer. These folks have identified a site near the WalMart. Testing and analysis of the site is complete. An application was submitted to the Elizabethton Housing Authority for Tax Increment Financing. The end result of all this effort will be the announcement of a new hotel being built in Elizabethton this fall. This has been a great need for a long time in that most of us have to recommend to our out of town guest that they stay in accommodations in one of our neighboring towns.

I have worked diligently with Mayor (Dan) Eldridge and Mayor (Greg) Lynch to develop the Northeast Tennessee Regional Partnership. This is a public/private partnership between Carter, Washington and Unicoi counties that has adequate funding and professional staff to brand and market the Johnson City MSA. Individually we do not have the resources for this important work. Collectively we will be successful. Recent Unicoi and Carter County have seen great results with announcements of new companies and expansion of existing companies. Thus, the addition of much needed jobs.

Question 4: Do you agree with the tax increase that was proposed for the 2018-19 fiscal year? Why or why not? 

I do not agree with the recent 11-cent tax increase. The positive trends in unassigned fund balance from 2010-2018 suggest that the county finances have improved considerably and are financially sound. This past year we saw an increase in revenues of approximately one million new dollars. We currently have 50 percent of the total budget in the unassigned fund balance (8-plus million dollars). The commission recently passed a resolution which puts the minimum balance at 20 percent of the operating budget. Budgets are fluid and must be adjusted every year. It is the commission’s job to ensure that the budget is balanced. This can be done easily with proper fiscal management and without cutting services; most definitely without imposing a tax increase.