The motto "working for you in ways you never imagined" is emblazoned on the Kentucky Association of Counties' logo, its County Line magazine and staff business cards.
It's a reference to the many services the organization provides for local governments, well beyond its original charge to amplify the voice of county leaders in Frankfort.
For instance, when the Garrard County courthouse's roof was damaged by wind last fall and a backhoe was totaled during January's ice storm, Judge-Executive John Wilson's first calls were to the county's insurance representative at KACo.
When Lincoln County needed health insurance for its employees, officials there went through KACo.
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And as Breckinridge County waits for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to cover the $495,000 in damages and costs related to the January ice storm, KACo is providing a low-interest lease to cover the costs.
"We are a member co-op going together for group purchasing," said KACo Executive Director Bob Arnold. "In fact, that's the whole reason KACo's insurance and loan programs were started — not just because we woke up one morning and decided to be in the insurance business."
So KACo has branched out to fill gaps in services the counties need, ranging from legal advice to training for newly elected officials.
"KACo has grown into a great big organization and has been good for the counties, I'll tell you that," said Lincoln County Judge-Executive R.W. "Buckwheat" Gilbert, a KACo board member. "It saves us a lot of money."
More than 100 counties, some local governments and a few other entities, including KACo itself, are paying for building projects or big purchases through KACo Leasing Trust program.
Since its formation in 1989, the program has provided $672 million in financing through more than 1,000 leases, said Grant Satterly, KACo's director of financial services.
"It's the cheapest place in the world to borrow money if you're a county organization," said Gilbert, the Democratic judge-executive in Lincoln County. His county is paying off 13 KACo leases worth more than $8 million that cover library construction, park lands, a fire truck and water lines.
KACo also has financed a $30 million hospital in Marshall County, the University of Kentucky's purchase of Good Samaritan Hospital and 11 courthouses for the Administrative Office of the Courts.
Fourteen years ago, KACo's insurance program was on the verge of collapse, forcing counties to pony up $4.8 million in extra assessments and landing the fund on the state Department of Insurance's version of probation.
But the fund returned to solid footing, and two years ago, the insurance department relaxed its requirement for the KACo All Lines Fund, as it's called, to file monthly financial statements.
In addition to the 111 counties that purchase property, casualty, liability and workers' compensation insurance, 39 counties now provide health insurance for workers through KACo, said Joe Greathouse, director of insurance.
Henderson County Judge-Executive Sandy Watkins said at a KACo board meeting last week that the "loss control programs" KACo offers have helped reduce claims and keep costs down. Workers' comp rates in Henderson County, for instance, dropped 14 percent last year, saving $18,000, he said.
Training and lobbying
One of KACo's training programs uses a driving simulator in the back of a semi-truck to teach defensive driving to county workers such as ambulance drivers.
And KACo takes firearms simulators across the state to train jailers and sheriff's deputies. The simulator projects digital images of situations they might encounter, such as a person pulling something out of a back pocket — is it a gun or a wallet?
"We did a survey and found that over 50 percent of our sheriffs departments didn't do any annual testing on firearms by going to a firing range," Arnold said.
After each election cycle for local officials, KACo holds training seminars for newly elected county leaders.
Throughout the year, KACo sets up educational sessions for officials across the state on key topics such as planning and zoning or energy efficiency and recycling.
And KACo has added lobbying strength by hiring Tom Troth, a former Legislative Research Commission official, and Ellen Williams, former Republican Party chairman.
"What we'd like to become is a more proactive organization, to present legislation to be passed that benefits counties and the general population of the state," Arnold said.