This week’s Courier Herald column:
As we go to the polls this week Georgians now know what it feels like to be a battleground state. We have seen national interests use Georgia’s Governor’s office and U.S. Senate seat become national proxies for a variety of interests. Ads from the major party candidates for these offices, as well as those from independent expenditure groups, have drowned out much of the rest of the debate.
Fighting for voters’ attention are others further down the ballot. And one that deserves a bit of recognition from Georgians as part of the closing for the 2014 race is first term incumbent Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black.
Black won office four years ago to fill a position that had been occupied by the same person since the sixties. The former commissioner’s grandson is now battling Black, the third of the Democrats’ famous family ticket. Black, however, deserves the nod for brining the Georgia Department of Agriculture kicking and screaming into the 21st Century.
At the 2011 Georgia Republican Convention Black jokingly asked the delegates if they know of anyone that needed to buy a microfiche reader. In assessing his first year in office he used that imagery to explain that he had a bit of a technological curve to getting his office operating with the tools needed to meet contemporary challenges.
Black took over an office still reeling by a failure of inspections at Peanut Corporation of America. A national salmonella outbreak in 2008 and 2009 was caused by food from the company’s Blakely plant, killing nine and sickening at least 700. Critics complained that Georgia was not adequately inspecting food processors, and that the state was not paying inspectors enough to do the job.
Black has raised the starting salary for Food safety and meat inspectors from $25,000 to $31,000, and fuel & measurement inspectors from $20,000 to $27,500. He noted that much of the increase was paid for reducing the prior turnover rate of more than 37%. He notes that it costs about $20,000 to train each of these workers, so reducing the turnover rate by paying market wages has helped attract and retain a better workforce.
Many of his other upgrades in systems and technology have been done “in house” with Department of Agriculture employees. He notes that phone lines installed for the Olympics were never utilized, but the department had been paying for them since 1996. Savings from waste such as this have been reinvested in upgrades.
The result? Black is doing more with less. His budget exclusive of employee health care costs is now $4 Million per year less than when he took office. And yet, he’s raised employee pay and streamlined operations with new technologies. Efficiencies created in his licensing system alone have resulted in an additional million dollars in revenue collection, with faster processing of checks collected also increasing the office’s cash management for taxpayers.
Stakeholders credit the office now being run with an open and collaborative atmosphere, with the overall image being “more professional” according to timber and blueberry grower Andy Stone.
Stone tells of Black becoming aware of the EPA’s growing concern that blueberry producers may be encroaching on wetlands as they have rapidly added acreage. Blueberry farmers knew better, as they need high ground for their plants to thrive. Still, as Stone said “the difference between a hill and a pond can be about six inches in South Georgia”, but rather than let the problem fester, Black met it head on.
He held a meeting with representatives of the EPA, Army Corps of Engineers, and various stakeholders within the blueberry growing community. By proactively discussing everyone’s concerns in advance of any rulings or new regulations, everyone was able to avoid misunderstandings and avoided a needless protracted battle.
The result is that Georgia’s environment remains protected, and that blueberries are now the state’s largest crop for fruit production. It’s a testament of getting folks to work together on the front end, rather than avoiding a problem until it became a bigger one.
Black is responsible for administering an agency that regulates Georgia’s largest economic engine. He’s as comfortable in an Atlanta boardroom as he is on any farm. And yet, it’s fairly clear which one he prefers.
Gary Black’s victory party won’t be in a downtown Atlanta hotel. It’s will be at the Harmony Grove farm in Commerce. The invite instructs that “barn doors open at 5pm”. You’ll have until 7pm Tuesday to vote for Black. He’s someone that has unequivocally earned four more years.