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What is a sheriff?

When someone hears the word “sheriff,” images of a swaggering cowboy from Western films or a hard-edged law enforcer from a gritty cop drama may pop into a their head. The truth is, the role of a sheriff is much different in real life than how it is usually depicted in fiction.

While the duties of elected government officials vary from state to state, the duties of a sheriff in the state of Kentucky do not entail as much law enforcement as people might assume.

As defined by the Legislative Research Commission of Kentucky, the role of the sheriff, an elected office, is more about tax collection and service to the courts than catching the bad guys. That is not to say a sheriff doesn’t enforce the law; they do, it’s just not their primary job duty.

The LRC provides four essential job duties of a sheriff — tax collection, election duties, services to courts and law enforcement. A sheriff will spend most of their time in office on civil affairs, not criminal ones.

On the tax collection front, Kentucky sheriffs collect taxes for the county, school districts and state. They also collect taxes for special entities such as libraries, fire protection districts or county health units. All county, state and district taxes are due by Dec. 31. If taxes are paid by Nov. 1, the sheriff grants a 2 percent discount. Also, those who own property pay their tax bills to the sheriff.

For election duties, the sheriff is part of the county board of elections which appoints election officers and certifies elections, among other duties. If the sheriff is a candidate for office, they are disqualified from these duties.

Regarding matters of the court, the sheriff acts in an administrative capacity to the courts. They must be present at every fiscal court meeting or other such court that is required.

There are far more duties a sheriff must perform under these three lesser known areas of service, but this is a basic outline of the role a sheriff plays in Kentucky. In order to be elected as a sheriff, a person much be at least 24 years old, a resident of the state for at least two years and a resident of the county he or she is seeking election in for at least one year.

Harlan County Sheriff Leslie “Smitty” Smith is running unopposed.

The primary election in Kentucky will be held May 22. The general election is slated for Nov. 6.