By Jeremy D. Wells
Carter County Times
The Olive Hill Chamber of Commerce continued their recent trend of inviting candidates for county wide office to speak during their last regular meeting, with incumbent Sheriff Jeff May (Republican) and challenger Eric Ross (Democrat) taking questions submitted by members of the community.
Both candidates introduced themselves and gave a little bit of their background in law enforcement and as residents of Carter County.
May started by stating he felt he’d taken the department to “a higher level” noting that he had four deputies when he started the job eight years ago, but that he now had “ten slots” that he could fill, even if all of those positions were not currently filled. He did concede they were having trouble filling all of those open positions currently, partly because it’s hard for anyone to find employees in the current job market and partly, he said, because of “a little mishap with fiscal court” revoking hazardous duty pay. Because of that, May said, he lost one deputy to another department.
May also clarified the roles of the sheriff’s department, explaining that while they are law enforcement, they have two main duties; “we collect taxes and take care of the court system.”
“That involves (serving) papers. That involves everyday court. That involves your transports… everything out there,” May said, on top of other law enforcement duties.
Ross, who used to work under May, has been in Carter County since 2016 and “fell in love with it.” He eventually married a local girl and started raising his family here, and though he said May was “a great boss,” when he worked under him, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have ideas about how to improve the department. Ross focused heavily on his philosophy that the sheriff needs to be in the community more. He said while the sheriff and his deputies can’t be everywhere all the time in a county the size of Carter, there are people in the community who know what is happening when law enforcement isn’t around. If the sheriff and his deputies can talk to those people, he said, they can give the department valuable information. Because of this, he said, he’d implement a county-wide neighborhood watch program as one part of his sheriff platform if elected.
“We’ve got to get back to basics,” Ross said. “We’ve got to get out in the community. We’ve got to get out talking to people, and learning what’s going on. The people here know what’s going on.”
After introductions the candidates were asked about their backgrounds. May noted that he has been in law enforcement for 20 years, starting his first job with Grayson PD in 2002, before moving to the sheriff’s office, as well as working in accounting and tax preparation – a job that makes him uniquely qualified for the sheriff’s dual role as tax collector. He also noted his time as a school resource officer, explaining that he loves the county and its people and that is why he continues to do the job, even when it gets challenging.
“That’s why you get up every day,” he said.
Ross started his career in Coal Grove as a 19-year-old, fresh out of the academy, before moving to the Raceland PD and working as a K9 handler and, as he previously noted, coming to Carter County to work for May in 2016. He’s also taken extra training in active shooter scenarios, administrative tasks, and different detective classes. He had attained the rank of sergeant with the sheriff’s department before leaving to take his current position with the Olive Hill PD.
Ross said as part of his plan to be in the community more he wanted to improve perceptions of the department among young people, so they felt more comfortable talking with police officers.
“If we can work on our kids, we can change a lot of things in this county, like with the drug factor.” He mentioned focusing on the drug pipeline into the county, and combatting that with K9s, but his philosophy also dovetails in many ways with the Galaxy Project’s Pathfinder Initiative. Though both candidates stated they were unfamiliar with the program at first, once it was described as the Icelandic model, Ross recollected attending the inaugural meeting for the group.
The Pathfinder Initiative seeks to push back the age when students first try drugs and alcohol by giving them other activities to “say yes” to.
May noted that in his time he has seen the drug problem evolve from pill mills to “shake and bake” meth to heroin and new fentanyl. Though you could try some of the K9 interdiction programs Ross championed, he said, and you can slow the spread with interdiction, there are many roads into the county, and it’s impossible, he said, to ever stop the flow completely.
Ross also said he would help grow the department with recruitment from the military, while May noted that the problems with growth aren’t related to recruitment, but retention due to a lack of funding from the county level. He noted that his department received only 2.45% of the total percentage of property taxes that the county collected – not 2.45% of the total collected. But, he said, after this election he planned to go back to the new judge executive and work to get back the hazardous pay retirement for his staff. He also noted that a new state law allows counties to recoup any training costs from departments recruiting their staff if they are hired before working a set period for the county who covered their training costs, and he would be taking advantage of that as well.
While he said no one could promise to be everywhere at all times, noting that with more than 400 square miles of land and 648 miles of roads, “that’s a lot of ground to cover” he said if he can get back up to 10 deputies, they will provide 24-hour coverage “no problem.”
Ross, on the other hand, suggested padding the force with unpaid reserve deputies, and help from constables and other partners.
The candidates also discussed the tax collection end of the job, with May explaining the process for tax exonerations through the PVA, and sharing that information through social media, the radio, and newspapers.
When asked about opioids specifically May noted that his department was pulling people over and sending them to jail, and working with FADE and other partners, but noted again the size of the county.
“There are 22 roads into this county,” he said. “We’ll keep fighting and taking them off the streets as we can, but we can’t stop it completely.
Ross agreed. “We can’t stop it,” he said. “But we can get out and work and talk to people.”
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