By Richard Rourk
Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee stopped in Unicoi County last week to meet with local officials to praise what they have been able to accomplish this past year.
Lee, who took time to tour Jones & Church Farms, Inc., met with town mayors and aldermen as well as, Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley, Unicoi Police Chief Andy Slagle, Unicoi County Director of Schools John English, Unicoi County Joint Economic Development Chairman Lee Brown and many more Unicoi Countians to discuss a range of issues including agriculture and career technology education in the region.
“Ag is the number one economic driver in Tennessee,” Lee said. “It’s incredibly important to us. Seeing this amazing facility, seeing the ag education here, it’s great.”
Lee noted that having career and technical education and agriculture classes have been critical in schools.
“We have put a lot of effort into how high school looks in the last three years,” Lee said.
While speaking with Lee, many in attendance showed appreciation for Lee’s commitment to vocational education and agricultural education.
“We are very thankful for all you do to support vocational and agricultural education,” said Town of Unicoi Mayor Kathy Bullen.
Lee also addressed a hot button topic in the region during his visit to Jones & Church on Tuesday, Nov. 30.
“I’m very passionate about giving people that are returning to society from prison opportunities and skills to succeed,” Lee said.
“The issue of addiction and mental health has been discussed broadly across the state,” Lee added. “We are looking at possible funding through rescue plan money. We are having these conversations with judges and other entities. We need better rehabilitation options.”
This is not a new issue for local officials. During a Unicoi County Inmate Revenue Committee meeting on March 8, 2019, it became clear that one of the major issues that all in attendance could agree on that the issue of drug addiction has a major impact in the county.
“I feel comfortable saying that 95% of our misdemeanors are drug charges,” Hensley said during that March 8 meeting. “If they have to pay for probation or pass a drug test, they are going to fail and possibly commit crimes to come up with the money to pay for probation. To me getting them into a drug rehab would be more important and a better option than jail.”
Hensley went on to state during the March 8 meeting that the costs are “unbelievable” when it comes to taking care of inmates who are “drug sick.”
Criminal Court Judge Lisa Rice also attended that 2019 meeting. “Eighty-five percent of the docket is drug-related and it costs half to keep a person in a rehab facility as opposed to jail,” Rice noted during remarks at that meeting.
Following Lee’s round table discussion, the governor took questions from the audience.
He also parried a comment from a supporter.
“I understand you enjoy the view of Tennessee from Nashville, but a lot of us feel you could do a lot of good for Tennessee at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue,” said long-time broadcaster and former Unicoi County Republican Party Chairman Jim Buchanan.
Lee denied he has presidential ambitions — for now.
“I still have a lot to do, and I really enjoy the view from Nashville,” Lee replied.