By Kristy Robinson Horine
John Wilson stands on the edge of the highway in Garrard County and looks in the direction everyone else is looking.
There, perched on a limestone ledge, is the cat. It’s been stuck there for hours and the members of this small county mull over how to save it. It’s one small cat, insignificant in the grand scheme of things, yet Garrard County is an area full of folks who happen to care about things that others might find too small to pay attention to.
Wilson thinks of his mother, Blair, and his grandmother, Judy. They were the strong women in his life who shaped his love for politics and public service. His grandmother was a rarity in the late seventies. She ran for an office similar to a magistrate. His mother just finished up a 20-year run in elected office — some of that time spent as a two-term mayor in New Jersey.
He thinks of his neighbors, his friends, his co-workers, his old classmates from law school.
Bet my day is nothing like their day, he says to himself.
Yes, he thinks some about the welfare of the desperate feline, but mostly, he thinks of his little girls. Annalee is 14 now. Ashlynn is ten. He knows he wants them to see him as a strong father, a caring public servant, a wise leader.
On the ground, animal control is considering calling the fire department, but Wilson thinks there might be an easier way. He will have to put forth some effort, and he’ll likely come away with his knees dusty and his hands dirty. Heck, he’ll probably have a few cat scratches when the day is done, but that just seems to be the way of things for him.
He simply does what he knows to be the best possible thing for his county.
“When there is an ice storm, you will see me out with a chainsaw with the road department. My employees know that I wouldn’t ask them to do something I’m not willing to do myself, and it helps me to appreciate what their needs are and what type of challenges they face,” Wilson says and then he tells of spending time at the ambulance service, helping with the solid waste, or cleaning out runs at the animal shelter. “Anything that is my responsibility, I try to be hands on. I think the public appreciates seeing that I’m not too good to roll up my sleeves myself.”
Wilson shares an idea with the animal control officer. With his height, he could probably climb up on the top of a vehicle and snag the cat with a catch pole.
It’s a plan, and it works. Within the hour, the cat is on its way to a safe haven at the animal shelter and Wilson and his co-workers have dispersed from the scene.
A small part of this county judge executive’s mind says that the cat incident might be a silly thing, but Wilson knows it will matter to someone someday. He also knows the rescue is part of what keeps his love for the job alive.
“No two days are the same, which is something that makes this job so rewarding. Some days are really difficult,” he admits. “I might find myself cleaning the animal shelter with our volunteers, and the next day, I might find myself in Frankfort, working with the Governor.”
No matter the task, he is reminded every day of the reason he works so hard for his community.
For the Love of His Girls
After Wilson received his undergrad degree from UK in 1999, he went on to earn his law degree from Capital University in Columbus.
“The day I graduated from Capital, I had my U-Haul all packed. I took my cap and gown off and drove back here to study for the Kentucky bar exam that same day,” Wilson says.
He was admitted to the bar in 2002 and bought his house in 2003. He came to Lancaster to practice law, but the more he learned about his new home, the more he felt compelled to do even more. His community, the one he chose out of devotion for the land and the people, was floundering.
The local hospital had closed. The county was over $4 million in debt. The fiscal court had enacted “an onerous” tax on the people in order to pay back that debt. Even though there were multiple ways Wilson engaged with his community, the call to serve more grew louder.
“It just seemed like, as a community, we were almost in a freefall here. People started asking me to run for judge executive to make a change, although it was something I had never really considered doing.,” he says.
Then, he thought of his daughters. At that time, Annalee was four years old and Ashlynn was a newborn.
“I thought about the opportunities for them and what kind of home that we would have here in the future if something really drastic didn’t change. Their opportunities here would be extremely limited,” he says.
In 2006, Wilson won the election and then started to work toward rebuilding paradise lost.
In The Multitude of Counselors
Some time ago, Wilson heeded sage advice: get wisdom. In order to follow that directive, he drew from the book of Proverbs. Proverbs has 31 chapters. There are seven months with 31 days. Wilson reasoned that he could read through Proverbs at least seven times every year, gaining help for real life.
It wasn’t long before he noticed a pattern with the readings. In more than one place, the Proverbs speaks to safety in the multitude of counselors.
“I’ll tell you one of the things that was very helpful to me when I came in, some of the judges from the surrounding counties had been in there a long time and I thought they were just giants of public service, so I would call on them a lot when there was controversy here or a difficult challenge that needed to be addressed,” he says. “You might have an idea for an improvement and you just have to study it and try to get the right people involved and work through the possible scenarios and then make your decision.”
He applied this principle to the county’s debt problem.
The wisest choice for getting the county out of debt seemed to be refinancing. The county hospital had been bankrupted by the previous fiscal court, which had then taken out a loan for $4.5 million. In order to pay back that money, the fiscal court enacted a six percent insurance premium tax to help pay off that loan by the year 2023. When Wilson came into office, he took a hard look at that loan, investigated his refinancing options, and then presented a plan to the fiscal court.
“We were paying a six and a quarter percent interest rate and we were able to lower it down to around three percent and we had some money around here that was earning less than a percent of interest, so we could take that money and pay it on the debt,” he says. “The principals of refinancing were not a hard sell, but there was a pretty significant prepayment penalty to do that refinancing.”
Though it was difficult for the public to swallow a penalty worth $500,000, the county ended up saving over $3 million by refinancing and paying the loan off ten years early. In addition, the fiscal court was able to repeal the insurance premium tax and Garrard County residents received what Wilson says is the first-ever county tax refund.
And that was just the beginning of the effect of wise counsel.
Under Wilson’s leading, the county also saved their 9-11 center by regionalizing dispatch. Under regionalization, both Garrard and Lincoln Counties are now covered by the same 9-11 dispatch, a decision that ultimately saves Garrard taxpayers about $90,000 a year. The county did the same thing with their solid waste program. By combining with Lincoln County, they were able to increase the recycling volume for both counties, thereby selling materials at increased profits, avoiding extra surcharges and were even able to start a door-to-door recycling pickup program.
At the End of the Day
At the end of each day, Wilson goes home to his girls. Now a single dad, he sometimes worries about what folks think. His family comes first, period. Dinner together at night is a priority. He never misses a game where Annalee cheers. Sometimes, the girls will attend a Bluegrass ADD meeting with him. Sometimes, they will join him at the animal shelter, or hang out at his office until his business for his community is finished.
After nine years in office, and beginning his third term as county judge executive, it’s part of why he loves his job – he loves his people, and deeply loves the little girls whose hands and hearts he holds every single day of his life.
“I never thought I would go more than one term as judge,” he says as he walks up the courthouse steps to his office. “Someone said to me after my first election that if I did what I was really supposed to do there, I would probably be a one-term judge because a lot of people would be upset. I hope we have done the right things, and ultimately, I have to look my girls in the eye at the end of the day and feel comfortable that we did the right thing. I think if you do the right thing, everything will work out okay in the end.”
Kristy Robinson Horine is a freelance writer from Paris. She wrote this story for Bluegrass Area Development District.