ATLANTA — Department of Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black called budget cuts across his department "uncomfortable."
Black noted his confusion of budget cuts to lawmakers Tuesday during the joint budget hearing, saying he’s never seen a perfect piece of legislation or a perfect budget — but he’s never seen “across the board cuts as a method of implementing strategic planning.”
On top of the mandated 4% and 6% cuts, the Department of Agriculture saw an additional $300,000 budget cut, which Black told CNHI he "will be seeking clarity" during committee meetings, because he hasn't received any clarification on it.
“The challenges this budget presents or as follows," Black said, “over the next 18 months there will be fewer food safety inspections. There'll be fewer animal industry inspections. The span between fuel pump and scale inspections will grow. And the growing demand for meat inspection will have to be shifted to our federal partners.”
When lawmakers expressed concern about food safety, Black said he’d do the best with what he has — a team that in 2019 was named the number one food safety team in the nation by the national Association of Food and Drug Officials.
“I’m real proud of that team, but we are a growing state. And that's one of the big challenges that we all have is how we're going to fulfill our obligations under a law and a growing state,” Black said. “And we will be very strategic, very cooperative and work with everyone along the way, but I can promise you, our team does a good job every day. But we are going to see with reduction in staff, you simply can't cover that territory maybe as frequently as you would like to.”
The Department of Agriculture will not compromise any of its emergency management abilities, Black told CNHI.
In Kemp’s budget proposal, the Department of Agriculture is set to be cut more than $1.8 million for fiscal year 2020 and more than $6.5 million in fiscal year 2021.
“It is of no personal comfort to me that I share it with you but it is truthful, and it is accurate,” Black told lawmakers.
Black said the department lost 18 full-time vacant and seven part-time vacant positions; phased out six employees beginning Oct. 1; and lost four call center employees when those services were cut.
These weren’t positions that were being held vacant, he said; they were positions the department was actively trying to fill — but could not find qualified applicants for the starting salary being offered by the department.
"Our number one focus all along was to impact as few of our employees as possible. I made a commitment to our team here that we were not going to have any furloughs," Black told CNHI. "Unfortunately, we were not able to preserve every position."
The department cut $161,000 of support for the Georgia Grown Program — a marketing program that promotes purchasing locally grown products. Half-a-million in vehicle funding cuts that the department was not utilizing in the governor's proposal that were not in the original budget recommendations from the department, Black said.
Black said he joined many in hopes of establishing an industrial hemp market — which he now cannot sign.
“According to USDA, our hemp program will soon be approved if I'm able to quote certify authorization of appropriations,” Black told lawmakers. “If I am able to certify quote, authorization of appropriations. Unquote. And we'd have to do that to fulfill our state regulatory responsibilities. I cannot certify something I do not have.”
Black said ultimately the budget is a long process and lawmakers will arrive at a solution.
"I'm concerned, but I also know that everybody wants what's good for Georgia," he said, "we're going to make our case — that's my job."
Black said that — what lawmakers called — his "candor" in Tuesday's budget hearings came from the weight of the decisions being made.
"We want to make sure that people understood what are the impacts of these cuts, because every one of these type of decisions, they have implications," Black said, "and it's important for everyone to understand what's going to happen."