Does Whidbey Island need mosquito control?

Island County Health Department officials want to kill as many mosquitoes as possible in 2004 and they're considering using property tax dollars to hire the job done.

Following a meeting last week in which Island County commissioners and health officials discussed forming a mosquito control district on Whidbey Island, a few people showed up at the board's meeting Monday to question the idea.

During a detailed discussion Monday, issues ranged from the cost to the effects of the insecticides that might be used.

The idea to form a mosquito control district grows out of health department fears that West Nile virus -- a disease carried by mosquitoes -- could spread to Island County. Monitored since the first case appeared in the United States in 1999, the virus has been found in dead birds in nearby counties and is expected to arrive here soon.

A mosquito control district could cost taxpayers up to 25 cents for each $1,000 of property value, which would raise $1.8 million in 2004, the first year the tax could be levied. However, county officials said they're leaning toward a lower levy.

Tim McDonald, Island County Health Department director, said five species of mosquitos can carry the virus. The fact that they are carriers makes it a priority to kill them.

"Mosquitos in the past have been a nuisance problem and not a public health problem," McDonald said.

He said a control district is needed because it allows for monitoring and eradication of mosquitos on public and private property.

Forming a district could start as soon as a May special election, something being pushed by McDonald and his department. Voters would decide whether to form a control district and whether to levy a property tax to fund it. More than 50 percent of voters in an election would have to vote in favor of the district for it to form; a 60-percent majority is needed to give the district taxing authority.

Though the argument for the district was framed in the context of public safety, several aspects of the issue concerned members of the public at the meeting. South Whidbey resident Rufus Rose wanted to know what kind of access control crews would have on private property. He said he wants to see crews ask property owners' permission before stepping foot on private property.

Another question came from Island County Green Party member Theresa Ghandi, who felt the the vote would be swung on fear generated over West Nile Virus. She asked that any ballot proposal not include the words "West Nile."

A predicable objection came from Laurie Keith, a member of the Whidbey Island No Spray Coalition. Keith, a Langley resident, said a mosquito control district is not warranted because there are other public health issues in greater need of funding. Her group helped convince the Island County Board of Commissioners last year to ban roadside spraying of herbicides.

Keith and Gandhi also wanted to know if the county will take into account the possible impacts of anti-mosquito chemicals on people, and Keith questioned what would happen if mosquitos build a resistance to the chemicals.

Mosquito control may be a critical health issue. According to the Center for Disease Control 3,989 cases of West Nile virus have been diagnosed in humans nationally. Of those, 259 died from encephalitis-like symptoms.

Defending the method of mosquito eradication, McDonald said the control district would use larvicide to control mosquitos. One larvicide that could be used is a bacteria that only attacks mosquito and black fly larvae.

Responding to questions about how much of a problem county and state-owned water sources pose in controlling mosquitoes. The insects lay their eggs in stagnant water.

McDonald said the public works department is developing a mosquito control plan for Island County-owned land. That land, he said, only accounts for 3 percent of the county.

If county residents vote to form a mosquito control district, its attached tax levy issue would go back for voter approval every year.

Last week, Roger Case, health officer for Island County, said noted that a mosquito control district in Clark County has an annual budget of approximately $200,000, a figure that may be more appealing to Island County voters. Camano Island also has a control district, which has survived without tax funding for several years.

"A five cent levy doesn't scare a lot of people while a 25 cent levy will scare a lot of people," Case said.

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