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COLUMN: Legislators unconcerned about cutting agriculture resources

The following article is an opinion piece and reflects the views of only the author and not those of AllOnGeorgia.


They can dispute it all they want, but there’s no getting around it. There are two Georgia’s: “the Atlanta metro area” and “not-Atlanta.”

Legislators often forget that while half of the state’s population resides in the metro area, the other taxpaying, resource worthy half does not. The lack of consideration for this is once again evidenced in Governor Deal’s FY 2018 proposed budget and the effort to suffocate one of the state’s most valuable resources.

If the current budget proposal passes both chambers, landowners, farmers, and business owners south of Interstate 20 in Atlanta will lose their local correspondents responsible for protecting our water supply and ensuring the use of land is one that is sustainable and safe.

The Governor’s budget specifically calls for a funding shift and an elimination of human capital for the state’s smallest agency and smallest tug on the state budget: The Soil & Water Conservation Commission.

The Soil & Water Conservation Commission (SAWCC) is, among so many things, responsible for providing resources to landowners, farmers, businesses looking to develop, and local governments in their region. From water quality and land preservation to sediment restriction and pilot agriculture programs, the efforts of the SAWCC may not be seen, but we all benefit from them daily. We all drink water and use land. Every Georgian has a vested interest in the existence of this agency.

The budgetary and personnel changes are troubling given the juvenile expertise of the agency Director. Mitch Attaway, appointed by Governor Nathan Deal in September 2016, was a cold storage facility operator prior to his appointment by Deal. His resume offers no soil or water conservation-related efforts and he has no experience managing state agencies. It would make sense to keep as many qualified and educated personnel as possible engaged in agency operations.

But quite the contrary is proposed. Attaway made his pitch on the FY 2018 budget for the Commission during the Appropriations Economic Development subcommittee hearing. (Why the agency isn’t part of the Agriculture or Natural Resource discussion is not clear). In it, he proposes eliminating three administrative assistant positions to save $135,000 in salaries annually. In doing so, four district offices would be closed – Calhoun, Milledgeville, Statesboro and Dawson – and the expenses of rent would be “saved.” All operations would then be in the main – and soon to be only – office in Athens.

There would be no local representatives for the agency south of the fault line where the majority of Georgia’s agriculture thrives. Every regional representative and resource specialist position would be eliminated and two employees would be responsible for Georgia’s 159 counties. Essentially, all 40 districts in the state would remain in place, but there would be no resources to service them. Instead of having a local representative available to visit land on a daily basis on behalf of an agency built on personal relationships with landowners, Attaway, brushing off the need for face-to-face interaction, said the agency would rely on emails, phone calls, and text messages to conduct business.

Additionally, Attaway plans for $500,000 to be allocated to the Crawford Extension so employees currently employed by the SAWCC could shift to the agency. While the UGA Extension is a valuable resource, it is as described – an extension of the University of Georgia. The problem is that SAWCC employees focus on prevention of harm and preservation of the land while Extension Offices tend to offer agricultural and crop efficiency resources. When pressed on how such a transfer would be implemented, Attaway said he was unsure of what the Extension would seek to do with the funds or the employees.

When asked how much money would be saved because of these actions, Attaway says the agency is ‘still working out the details’ and a concrete number is not available. There is no plan in place to ensure services are provided.

State representative Jan Tankersley, who represents Bulloch County, sits on the subcommittee and was rather reserved on this issue. She asked for clarification on the district offices that would be shuttered but made no mention of the Statesboro office, its’ employees, or the 34 counties that single office currently services. I found this particularly odd considering the 180,275 acres of farmland across Bulloch County’s 544 farms that generate $105,325,000 annually in sales.

Sam Watson, a farmer from Moultrie, was also unconcerned by the elimination of the jobs, seemingly trusting of Attaway’s deflection that the Extension would pick up any slack despite not having any concrete plan.

Despite Tankersley and much of the subcommittee’s silence on the effects on the agency, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper Jason Ulseth poignantly spoke before the committee to voice his concerns about the cuts. Ulseth said the loss of people would very easily lead to damage to citizen property and an inability to reach every corner of the state. The SAWCC, he said, reviews hundreds of plans each month to ensure developers are in compliance with state law, a service many smaller local governments are unable to provide. Most concerning, Ulseth emphasized that making cuts and moving resources to other state agencies could put the SAWCC in a position that would prevent it from meeting its’ statutory requirements for the state. Is that what the end goal is?

Perhaps. These are not the first cuts to the agency. In November of 2016, the Water Metering Program previously operated by SAWCC was transferred to EPD, a regulatory agency that now has the authority to limit the amount of water used on high volume wells and irrigation systems. Of course, that is all through a Memorandum of Understanding between the two agencies as state law still explicitly gives the authority to the SAWCC, not the EPD. As for the EPD, the agency is spread thin on personnel and often times relies on the SAWCC for help. It makes no sense to eliminate a support system for an agency unable to takeover the responsibilities.

The importance of the agency needs no explanation: Agriculture is by and large Georgia’s most valuable industry.

The benefits of the SAWCC are endless. Unlike EPD and the Department of Agriculture, the SAWCC is voluntary and landowners seek to participate in programs offered by the agency. I have interviewed dozens of farmers in my 18 months of living in rural Georgia and they all emphasize the same thing: They want to be good stewards of the land. The SAWCC helps them do that.

The SAWCC assists local and county governments with land disruption plans on a daily basis. Without the SAWCC, every local government would be forced to employ their own person capable of analyzing and approving such plans or hire a contractor to do so – on any plan disrupting land over one acre. This action would undoubtedly strain many of the small rural communities who need the agency the most.

So what is the solution? Here’s an idea. The EPD collects more than $700,000 per year in funds for Land Disturbance Applications for cities not eligible to go through the SAWCC. Instead of sending that money to the General Fund for any given expenditure, the funds could be reinvested in the agency focused on the actual purpose of the Land Disturbance Applications.

The SAWCC is the state’s smallest agency. I simply do not believe our legislators are unable to find $3 million in the budget to preserve and protect the water and land of our state. Perhaps we skip the $645,000 allocated for three positions and economic development outreach in China for Economic Development. This is for here. For our state. For the land and water we use for hunting and fishing, for agriculture, for building homes and businesses. Unless, of course, this has nothing to do with money and everything to do with the politics of the agency.

You can see the video of the Appropriations meeting below. The video starts at the appropriate minute mark.

Present in the subcommittee hearing from left to right: Reps Allen Peake, Sam Watson, (Secretary) Penny Houston, Jan Tankersley, Mack Jackson.

Jessica Szilagyi is a Statewide Contributor for AllOnGeorgia.com. She focuses primarily on state and local politics as well as issues in law enforcement. She has a background in Political Science with a focus in local government and has a Master of Public Administration from the University of Georgia. Jessica is a "Like It Or Not" contributor for Fox5 in Atlanta and has two blogs of her own: The Perspicacious Conservative and "Hair Blowers to Lawn Mowers."

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