Unicoi County has now placed itself among other regional municipalities that have taken action to restrict the sale and use of synthetic drugs and bath salts.
At Monday’s regular meeting, the Unicoi County Commission unanimously passed a resolution to prohibit the sale and use of synthetic drugs. The resolution passed by the county is similar to those previously passed by other governmental entities, including Kingsport, Sullivan County and Bristol, in that violators of the ban will face a $50 fine. County Attorney Doug Shults said this is the civil penalty that the law allows at this time.
“Our power stops at $50,” he said. “A $50 fine is all we can do.”
Prior to the commission’s vote, Shults said the restriction would fall under the county’s recently enacted “nuisance statute.” Shults was asked to draw up a resolution at a county commission work session held last week. He said that this did not leave him much time to research the matter and that it was his recommendation not to consider the resolution at this time.
“Clearly, synthetic marijuana should be banned,” Shults said. “The state Legislature is doing that, maybe not moving as fast as some people want, but they are in the process of passing laws to do this.”
As the ordinance stands right now, the county attorney would be over enforcement. Amendments to the resolution could be made at a later time. Also, the restriction would apply to areas of the county falling outside of the limits of the towns of Erwin and Unicoi.
At a previous meeting, the commission approved a resolution to support pending state legislation that would criminalize the use and sale of synthetic drugs. However, Commission Chairwoman Sue Jean Wilson said the county must be “proactive” on the matter. Commissioner Mickey Hatcher said without passage of a resolution, there is no synthetic drug deterrent in the county.
“Anything we can do as a deterrent on the front end, right now, we need to look at it and act,” Hatcher said. “The legislature is going to come back with a stricter law, great, but my feeling is we need to move on this. Children are being hurt. If we can prevent any of it at all, we need to do so.”
The commission also approved a request to return temporary disability benefits previously paid out to Unicoi County Sheriff Kent Harris to the county’s workers’ compensation insurance carrier and approved a budget amendment related to the request.
Following an August 2010 fall from the roof of the Unicoi County Jail, Harris began receiving weekly workers’ compensation checks. In all, the sheriff received 21 checks totaling $17,671.50. The checks stopped when Shults notified the insurance carrier that Harris should not be receiving the payments due to his being an elected official.
Unicoi County Mayor Greg Lynch said Harris never cashed these checks, but instead turned them over to the county as soon as he received them. Lynch said last week this money was put into a reserve account and that he was told Harris would receive the funds as part of a disability settlement if the sheriff was to retire.
The commission also approved a motion concerning payment of the county’s portion of overtime pay owed to several former and current 911 dispatchers. The motion allows Shults to offer an amount to the court up to an amount he determines in his audit of overtime owed to the dispatchers in hopes of resolving the matter.
At a Dec. 5 meeting of the Unicoi County 911 Service Board, Wilson said that when the county’s emergency dispatchers were switched from working eight-hour shifts to 12-hours shifts in July 2010, more than $33,000 in overtime was accumulated. County officials were later advised by representatives with the County Technical Advisory Service that the overtime would need to be paid as the 12-hour shift pay scale, which applies to county deputies, would not apply to the dispatchers.
At that meeting, the Service Board voted to pay half of the overtime owed, with the understanding that the county was to pay the other half. At its Dec. 19 meeting, the county commission rejected this measure, with several commissioners citing the need for more information on the matter.
In January, eight current and former emergency dispatchers filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Greeneville naming the county and Unicoi County Emergency Communications District as defendants. The plaintiffs are seeking unpaid compensation, an equal amount of liquidated damages, costs and attorneys’ fees.
As was discussed at a commission work session held last week, funding for the amount to be offered into court would come from salaries budgeted in the Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department’s current fiscal year budget that are currently not being paid.
In other business, the commission:
n Approved a request from the county’s University of Tennessee Extension to help with funding a mapping project the extension is completing. The request for $1,000 for this project was approved by the commission.
n Approved a resolution to request unclaimed balance of accounts under the Unclaimed Property Acts.
n Approved a resolution authorizing the county mayor to make and sign an application for Community Development Block Grant funds. The funding would used by Erwin Utilities for a sewer project, and Erwin Utilities would be responsible for paying the grant’s match.