Freeze damage to Georgia peaches prompts disaster declaration

ATLANTA – The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has declared 18 Georgia counties natural disaster areas due to damage to the state’s peach crop and other commodities caused by March freezes.

The declaration will allow the USDA’s Farm Service Agency to extend emergency credit to Georgia farmers.

“I’m grateful to USDA Secretary [Tom] Vilsack for recognizing the importance of delivering much-needed relief to Georgia farmers following the untimely freezes in March,” state Commissioner of Agriculture Tyler Harper said Tuesday.

“Since the freeze, we’ve worked with our farmers and producers to ensure USDA clearly understood the severity of the situation and the needs of those impacted by the freeze. Georgia peaches are a symbol of the success of our state’s No.-1 industry, and this much-needed relief will help farmers and producers bounce back better than before.”

The 18 counties listed in the disaster declaration – primarily in North and Middle Georgia – include Banks, Crawford, Fannin, Gilmer, Habersham, Hall, Jackson, Johnson, Macon, Madison, Meriwether, Monroe, Peach, Pike, Taylor, Towns, Union and Upson.

Farmers in the following 38 contiguous counties also are eligible for assistance: Barrow, Bibb, Butts, Clarke, Coweta, Dawson, Dooly, Elbert, Emanuel, Forsyth, Franklin, Gordon, Gwinnett, Harris, Hart, Houston, Jasper, Jefferson, Jones, Lamar, Laurens, Lumpkin, Marion, Murray, Oconee, Oglethorpe, Pickens, Rabun, Schley, Spalding, Stephens, Sumter, Talbot, Treutlen, Troup, Washington, White, and Wilkinson.

USDA loans can be used for a variety of recovery requirements including replacing farm equipment or livestock, reorganizing a farm operation, or to refinance specific loans. The Farm Service Agency reviews all loans based on the extent of losses, available security, and ability to repay.

The application deadline is Feb. 26 of next year.

Georgia House ‘working group’ focusing on public safety

Georgia House Speaker Jon Burns

ATLANTA – Finding enough money to attract and retain state law enforcement officers promises to be the top priority for a Georgia House “working group” on public safety that held its first meeting Tuesday.

House Speaker Jon Burns, who formed the committee earlier this year, read a passage from Georgia’s Constitution in his opening charge to the panel.

“Protection to person and property is the paramount duty of government and shall be impartial and complete,” Burns, R-Newington, said in an opening charge to the committee, which met at the new Georgia Department of Public Safety Headquarters in southeast Atlanta.

Rep. Bill Hitchens, R-Rincon, the working group’s chairman and a Georgia State Patrol retiree, said trooper salaries in the Peach State are not keeping pace with what surrounding states pay. At the same time, retirement benefits have declined substantially from the 90% of full salary he was awarded when he left the patrol.

“This is an issue of supply and demand,” he said. “In order to get our supply, we have to pay for it.”

The fiscal 2024 state budget, which takes effect this weekend, includes pay raises of $4,000 to $6,000 for state law enforcement officers. But Burns said the working group needs to look not only at trooper salaries but other aspects of the job designed to make law enforcement more attractive.

“Compensation and benefits, training, equipment … are legislative solutions that will be part of your conversation,” he said. “For our citizens to feel safe in their homes, where they work, and where they play is your task.”

Hitchens said his first step will be sending out a survey to state agency heads to find out which agencies have law enforcement personnel on their payrolls.

“It would give us a starting point about who we have and what they do,” he said.

Besides Hitchens, the working group includes Reps. Mandi Ballinger, R-Canton; J Collins, R-Villa Rica; Eddie Lumsden, R-Armuchee; and Brian Prince, D-Augusta.

SRTA helping to fund seven local road projects

Gov. Brian Kemp

ATLANTA – A program of grants and loans for infrastructure improvements run by the State Road and Tollway Authority (SRTA) has awarded $17.3 million to help fund seven projects across Georgia.

The authority’s board voted Monday to approve grants and loans from the Georgia Transportation Infrastructure Bank (GTIB) to four cities, two counties and a community improvement district.

“Georgia is in the midst of a second industrial revolution, and as a result, the need to further build out our infrastructure has never been greater,” said Gov. Brian Kemp, the SRTA’s board chairman. “Thanks to SRTA, this year we were able to fund all of the rural projects that submitted an application for this statewide program.

“With these substantial awards, we are paving the way for economic growth, expanded opportunities, and seamless mobility for all hardworking Georgians, regardless of their zip code.”

The largest loan, more than $4.9 million, a record since the GTIB was launched in 2010, went to Pike County to resurface Brushy Creek Road from city hall to McCranie Road. The award also included a grant of nearly $1 million.

A $4.7 million loan, the second largest in the program’s history, went to the city of Lilburn for a series of road improvements aimed at improving access to Lawrenceville Highway.

The city of Woodstock will receive more than $2.3 million in grants and loans to widen Town Lake Parkway from Mill Street to just east of Interstate 575 to increase access to the city’s downtown.

The Buckhead Community Improvement District is getting a $2 million GTIB loan to help fund a series of pedestrian, bicycle, streetscape and traffic improvements along Lenox Road from Piedmont Road to Phipps Boulevard.

More than $900,000 in grants and loans will go to the city of Colquitt to resurface and widen 4th Street from Main Street to MLK Jr. Street.

Monroe County will receive nearly $800,000 to replace the Old Brent Road Bridge, which has been closed since last year due to structural failure.

The tiny community of Twin City in Emanuel County is getting $600,000 to realign a three-way intersection at Washington Road and Janice Drive into a four-way, signalized intersection.

The GTIB has awarded $200 million in grants and loans since its inception, investing in projects with a combined value of more than $1 billion.

Moody Air Force Base lands new F-35A mission

U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff

ATLANTA – Moody’s Air Force Base near Valdosta will host two squadrons of the Air Force’s newest fighter aircraft, a mission that will add about 500 personnel.

The new F-35A Lighting II fighters are projected to begin arriving as soon as fiscal 2027 and will replace Moody’s A-10 Thunderbolt IIs that are due to be retired, the Air Force announced Monday.

“This is a major step forward in our ongoing effort to strengthen and sustain Moody Air Force Base for decades to come,” said U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., who has worked to upgrade facilities at the base. “Moody is a critical national security asset and a vital job creator for South Georgia.”

The 23rd Fighter Group arrived at Moody back in 2007 with its A-10s, followed a couple of years later by the 476th Fighter Group. Six of Moody’s A-10s are due to be retired during the next federal fiscal year.

Another 48 A-10s at Moody are scheduled for retirement through fiscal 2028, to be replaced over time by the two F-35A squadrons.

Meanwhile, additional A-10s at Gowen Field National Guard Base in Idaho also are due to be replaced, in this case, by F-16s.

The selection of Moody and Gowen to host the new F-35As won’t be finalized until environmental impact studies have been completed. Both analyses are expected to wrap up in 2025.

Georgia agriculture department reforming law enforcement division

Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture Tyler Harper

ATLANTA – The Georgia Department of Agriculture has regained its status as a law enforcement agency more than a decade after the agency’s Law Enforcement Division was disbanded.

Commissioner of Agriculture Tyler Harper has appointed 29-year law enforcement and emergency management veteran Harlan Proveaux to head the newly reconstituted division. Proveaux will serve the agency’s Law Enforcement & Emergency Management Division as both director and inspector general.

Before joining the agriculture department, Proveaux served for seven years as deputy director of the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency. He also has worked for several other state and local agencies including the Georgia Public Safety Training Center, the state Department of Natural Resources, and the Ware County Sheriff’s Office.

“Director Proveaux brings decades of experience in law enforcement and emergency management, and he has my full support and confidence as we work together to rebuild and restore this critical division within the department,” Harper said.

The restored law enforcement division in Harper’s department will assist local, state, and federal agencies with a wide range of investigations from animal cruelty to labor and drug trafficking and agro-terrorism, while also working to improve safety and security at the state farmers markets across Georgia.

The emergency management aspect of the division will work to respond more rapidly and effectively to animal diseases and natural disasters.