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Mosquito district idea will get a public airing

Island County residents will have about one month to gather their research and form their opinions as to whether or not they want to vote on creating a tax-funded mosquito control district.

At their Monday meeting, the Island County Board of Commissioners voted 2-1 to set a March 24 date for a public hearing to discuss creating such a district. Commissioner Mac McDowell cast the dissenting vote.

County health officials argue that forming a district is the best way to protect the county from the westward spread of the West Nile Virus -- a disease that was discovered in the United States in 1999. West Nile has been making a westward advance ever since.

Should the proposal make it to the ballot, voters would decide whether to form a mosquito control district and whether to approve a property tax levy to fund it. This week, the commissioners were talking about a tax of 10-cents per $1,000 of assessed property value.

Although the public comment session is about a month away, several county residents were on hand Monday object to forming a mosquito control district. Concerns ranged from the use of chemicals that could impact the public to alternatives to forming the district.

"There's a lot of people living on this island who have become highly educated and informed about the dangers of using chemical sprays and many would rather choose alternate, less toxic approaches," said Clinton resident Lori O'Neal, who was a leader in a successful fight to ban roadside herbicide spraying last year.

O'Neal said she does not want a district formed. She said she would like to see community groups use natural means of eradicating mosquitos, such as introducing fish that feed on mosquito larva.

In previous discussion, health department officials said a mosquito control effort would kill mosquitoes with larvicides. They asserted larvicides are more effective than targeting full-grown mosquitos.

Langley resident Laurie Keith, a member of the Whidbey Island No-Spray Coalition, questioned whether the threat of the West Nile virus warrants the resources needed for a mosquito control district.

"In order for it to have any chance of success, the health department will have to launch a fear campaign to convince people how big a threat it is," Keith said.

The Center for Disease Control has documented 3,989 human cases of the virus with 259 deaths nationwide since 1999. The virus can also infect and kill birds, horses and other mammals.

Locally, only one case of West Nile Virus has been confirmed, involving a horse. According to health officials, several mosquito species found in Island County are known carriers of the virus.

Keith argued that the county could use the money needed to run a levy for public education projects to inform people about the environment mosquitoes need to breed.

South Whidbey resident Rufus Rose wanted to know if a district has to have an appointed board and the powers of such a board.

Commissioner Mike Shelton said the structure of a district is dictated by state law, which says the trustees of a district are appointed by the county commissioners.

The power of the trustees concerned Commissioner Mac McDowell.

"A future board has almost unlimited authority. They are accountable to nobody," McDowell said, adding that the appointed board would have the power to increase the levy to 50 cents per $1,000 and could dictate how mosquitoes are removed from private property.

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