Promoting Ag in Georgia, and How County Governments are Dealing with Budget Challenges
Tuesday, November 8th, 2011
(Ross King is the executive director of the Association County Commissioners of Georgia, a non-profit based in Atlanta that serves as the consensus building, training, and legislative organ for all 159 county governments in the state. It administers and facilitates many programs, from insurance and retirement services to leadership seminars to promoting economic growth, and assists local governments in meeting the health, safety and welfare needs of their citizens.
Growing Georgia contributing editor Chuck Strangward recently spoke with King about what the association does to promote agriculture in Georgia, and how county governments are dealing with budget challenges. The interview has been edited for length.)
Chuck Strangward: What does ACCG do to specifically promote the agriculture industry in Georgia?
Ross King: One of the things we’ve done is taken urban officials to southwest Georgia and shown them the stewardship and water management practices counties in southwest Georgia have employed. Then we’ve flipped the equation and taken rural officials into the metro-Atlanta area and shown them traditional water-management practices. Agribusiness is the lifeblood of the region, and the issue of water and its sustainability features heavily in that industry’s growth and profitability. So does transportation infrastructure. So, we look for ways to enhance the road and rail networks for commerce.
Strangward: You sit on UGA’s College of Agriculture and Environmental Science’s Advisory Council. Where do those entities – the ACCG and the university – merge?
King: We’re one of only 4 states in the country that has an Extension liaison position where partial payment of salary and benefits and expenses is covered by this association. We feel very passionately about the importance of having a position between Extension and ACCG. With the severity of the budget cutbacks and the movement away, possibly, from the tradition of having an Extension agent in each of the state’s 159 counties, we’re able to have very focused discussions among our membership and leadership, and keep them informed about these challenges and a viable Extension program in force, using as many means as afforded to this organization and the university network.
When it got to the point where there was a strong realization about the potential severity of the cutbacks to the Extension network, Jeff Christie [ACCG’s current Extension liaison] came to me and said it would be helpful for us to get a better sense of how the county members feel regarding Extension operations and exactly what their knowledge base is. So the ACCG and the College of Agriculture and Environmental Science’s Extension Service ran a collaborative survey. The response was strong. We were able to direct the surveys to critical individuals in both elected and appointed positions, and it provided a health test, if you will, on county mindsets.
Strangward: Counties fund Extension services from their operating budgets. Both the state and university have been faced with financial challenges. What is ACCG doing to help counties deal with these shortfalls?
King: A number of counties have very pridefully set aside dollars within their respective county budgets to help offset and cover salaries for Extension services and do other things to accommodate the Extension’s network because they realize, quite frankly, that these employees are an extension of the county government network. They see it as a true collaborative that has been in force for an extended period of time.
I’ve witnessed counties working extremely hard to figure out how to continue the Extension system whether it’s done on a single-county basis or whether they’re willing to take a look at a new “circuit-rider” approach that would at least provide an attachment to the traditional Extension network in the event full-time service isn’t available.
We are very dedicated as an organization to ensure that counties talk about their respective budgets: First the revenue system, then areas where they are experiencing shortfalls. We help them examine expenditure areas and come to a conclusion about how the efficiencies of operation can be altered to stretch the dollar.
Sharing information saves money. Maybe someone’s been down this road, or found an innovative approach to a problem. The strength of agribusiness ties directly back to county government strength. There’s a complete parallel between agribusiness and county operations. The viability of agribusiness depends not just on current production but that of the future as well, and we need to make sure we’re on the cutting edge and not stagnant.
(The ACCG includes more than 810 commissioners, 400 appointed county clerks, managers, administrators, attorneys and more than 80,000 full-time and part-time employees. To find out more about the association and what it does for Georgia, go to its website at http://www.accg.org.)