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Mosquito warriors flex their muscle

They're rich and poor, young and old, and very, very powerful.

As West Nile virus rolls through the state, the disease is introducing millions of Californians to once-obscure agencies that can override city laws and spread pesticide despite property owners' objections.

For many, the introduction is welcome. They want their property and their neighbors' properties treated, whether with mosquito-eating fish, larvae-killing bacteria or chemical fogs that fell adult insects.

For some, knowledge of mosquito-fighters' clout dawns more harshly.

It should be a city's right "to determine whether or not a poison is going to be used in their community," said Fairfax town council member Frank Egger, still fuming that the local vector control district can ignore his town's ban on pesticide in parks.

Statewide, the special districts that tackle mosquitoes and other disease-carrying pests known as vectors are on the march.

They've been expanding borders and sharply boosting staff. New districts are springing up, and existing ones are using mail-in ballots to raise more funds.

With their bulked-up muscle, they now are able to force property owners to clean out mosquito-causing muck or pay fines of up to $1,000 a day.

They are also more distant from the people they've been created to protect than elected bodies like city councils or county supervisors, and that can make accountability cumbersome.

Statewide, most mosquito control work is done by special districts run by boards that cannot be unseated during their terms except for wrongdoing. Typically, each city council and county board of supervisors within a vector district gets to appoint one board member for a two-to four-year term. Because they are unelected, they are not subject to recalls, initiatives or referendums, said Dick Shanahan, an attorney for the Mosquito and Vector Control Association of California.

That's been a hard lesson for some in the Sacramento region, as the Sacramento-Yolo Mosquito and Vector Control District this month began spraying pesticide from planes above urban neighborhoods and warning that ground spraying might be expanded into more cities.

"There's no way you can opt out of the aerial spray. They're spraying your property without permission," said Doug Williams of Carmichael, who worries that increased pesticide exposure could pose subtle, long-term risks for his two young children.

Williams was dismayed to learn that Sacramento County, like every city and county in the district, has only a single representative on an appointed board.

"If they were elected, we'd have some recourse," he said, although he added that public criticism did seem to make a dent at the board, which has agreed to re-examine its spraying strategies this winter.

Some of the staunchest challengers of one of the state's most embattled districts, though, say the problem is not that mosquito boards are too powerful - it's simply that people haven't been paying attention.

"I know we're all busy, but it's the public's responsibility to go to meetings and be an active part of the democratic process," said Helge Hellberg, who runs an organic growers association in Marin County and is on a committee trying to reshape pest control there.

"If everyone did that, we wouldn't be fighting the fight. We would already control the process."

Few have been trying as hard as some in Marin County to take control of the process of battling mosquitoes.

The town of Fairfax in 2001 passed a law banning pesticides from town-owned parks, open spaces and rights of way, and requiring anyone applying the chemicals to notify neighbors.

Sorry, the Marin/Sonoma Mosquito and Vector Control District told Fairfax last year, but the district's public health responsibilities can't be infringed upon by local laws. It would spray if needed. It would notify only as it saw fit.

Fairfax appealed to the state Department of Health Services, which referees disputes between vector control districts and local governments. The department took no stand on the notification issue, but said vector control officials had every right to disregard the pesticide ban.

The town could go to the courts next, council member Egger said, but it is trying a different strategy.

He's now Fairfax's appointed representative on the mosquito district board, and is working, vote by vote, to try to build a majority for "a nontoxic, nonpoisonous approach to dealing with West Nile virus." By his own count, he's halfway there.

That may not be enough to help a scattering of unincorporated Marin communities, including Bolinas and Point Reyes Station, where residents are talking about pulling out of the district if a consensus can't be reached on what should be used to kill mosquito larvae.

Jim Wanderscheid, district manager, is among those hoping a compromise can be found, because all involved agree the western Marin area could use some mosquito control.

Besides, he added, "Let's just say west Marin de-annexed. If mosquitoes from west Marin crossed the borders into our district, which they will, we have every right to go in and do what we're doing now, so it would be kind of senseless."

Wandersheid was describing another power of any mosquito district in California, Shanahan confirmed: the legal right to go outside its own borders to stamp out a problem that affects its residents.

Both Wanderscheid and John Stroh, president of the statewide vector control association, say they haven't heard of anywhere else in California where communities are so disturbed by pest-control plans that they are talking about pulling out of a district.

Much of the state is headed in the opposite direction, scrambling to beef up mosquito-fighting efforts in the face of a newly arrived and sometimes fatal disease.

"The last two to three years has been the greatest period of growth since the period following World War II, and that's simply because of West Nile," said Charlie Dill, head of the Placer Mosquito Abatement District, one of the state's newest.

About 90 percent of Californians live in an area where either a branch of county government or a special district performs some kind of mosquito control, according to Vicki Kramer, who runs the vector-borne disease program at the state Department of Health Services.

The department keeps track because it requires everyone doing mosquito control to sign annual agreements, report pesticide use, report any "conspicuous or suspected" ill effects from pesticides and use properly trained staff, among other things.

Today, 75 different operations that cover about half of the state's land area have such agreements - up from 62 in 2001, Kramer said. Staffing has escalated even more steeply, with the number of certified vector control agents statewide up by 30 percent since 2001, state data shows.

There are huge gaps between the richest and poorest districts, driven partly by when a district was formed, whether it historically has had a share of property taxes and whether it was sheltered from tax shifts.

"It's no different than schools. The haves have, and the have-nots keep trying to get it," said Dill.

There's no easy way to say, though, whether the most money statewide flows to areas with the worst problems with either mosquitoes or mosquito-borne diseases, Kramer and others said.

It's almost impossible to use yardsticks like population or square miles to gauge who needs the most money, because different terrains, habitats and mosquito species pose such varied challenges, said Gerard van Steyn.

Van Steyn is president of Shilts Consultants, a company that helps public agencies raise funds and one of the key players in recent efforts to funnel more money into mosquito control.

His company has overseen about 15 benefit assessment votes around California to beef up vector control in the past few years - and all of them passed, he said.

He credits people's interest in having year-round services for the successes, as well as using the benefit-assessment approach, in which mail-in ballots give property owners a weighted vote based on how much they would benefit. Such assessments can pass by a simple majority, unlike property tax measures, which need a two-thirds vote.

El Dorado County this spring tried to pass a parcel tax to expand mosquito control on its western slope, but the measure failed to clear the two-thirds hurdle, capturing 55 percent of voters.

Today the county, which runs its own mosquito control, gets by on a $650,000 budget and about 10 people, including three seasonal employees and a couple of shared managers. In winter some of the same staff handles snow removal.

The Sacramento region offers a snapshot of the kind of disparities found statewide.

The Placer Mosquito Abatement District struggled to life in temporary headquarters in its manager's apartment. Its 18 employees include eight seasonal workers, and manager Dill tries to stretch its $1.7 million budget by focusing on the species that carry disease, even if that means neglecting some "horrible, vicious biters," and on the places where bugs and people come into closest contact.

By comparison, the Sacramento-Yolo Mosquito and Vector Control District is one of the state's richest, with an annual budget of $10.5 million. It runs its own lab, monitors ticks and yellowjackets as well as mosquitoes, and its staff of 77 includes an aerial coordinator, fisheries specialists and just a handful of seasonal workers. The district pays manager David Brown $110,000 annually, compared with Dill's $79,000.

There's much less disparity for mosquito district board members, who by law serve without pay, although they can be reimbursed for actual expenses or be given a flat $100 monthly for expenses, said attorney Shanahan.

In the past, it was hard to find a much lower profile public service post than a seat on a mosquito district board, although West Nile is starting to change that.

That low profile contributed to some of the tension surrounding Sacramento's spraying operation, with some residents saying they should have been kept more informed, and local officials acknowledging they could have done a better job of letting people know when - and why - pesticide applications were planned.

Officials from several districts say they welcome the more intense public focus now, despite temporary strains, because it represents a chance for better communication between the districts and those they serve.

"If people would take the time to understand what the districts do, they wouldn't feel threatened and scared about it," said Wanderscheid.


WEST NILE AT A GLANCE

Human cases, 2005

State: 370

Regional counties: Sacramento, 83; Stanislaus, 46; Butte, 10; Sutter, three; San Joaquin, nine; Yolo, six; Placer, eight

Ground spraying to begin in Roseville

The Placer Mosquito Abatement District plans ground spraying by truck in south Roseville on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Weather permitting, the spraying will occur from 1 a.m. to 4 a.m. The areas to be sprayed are:

  • Tuesday: Along roads bounded by Vernon Street, the Placer County line, and Sunrise Avenue and Douglas Boulevard.
  • Wednesday: Along roads bounded by Harding Boulevard/Galleria Boulevard, Douglas Boulevard, Vernon Street, Washington Boulevard, Pleasant Grove Boulevard and Roseville Parkway.
  • Thursday: Along roads bounded by Washington Boulevard, Pleasant Grove Boulevard, Foothills Boulevard, Cirby Way and Vernon Street.
  • Roseville and south Placer County residents who want to be placed on Placer Mosquito Abatement District's "no spray" list should notify the district, preferably by e-mail at pminfo@placermosquito.org, or by calling the district beginning Monday at (916) 435-2140 and providing their name, telephone number and property address.

    Magpie-count aid sought

    Holly Ernest, a wildlife veterinarian at the University of California, Davis, is coordinating a volunteer network to count magpies to help learn how much West Nile virus is affecting their numbers. Ernest is asking people who walk daily or commute by bicycle to look for and count magpies. To participate, contact wildlife@vgl.ucdavis.edu.

    Where to get information

    • To report a dead bird, call (877) 968-2473
  • Sacramento and Yolo counties: Residents can request mosquitofish, report untreated pools of standing water, get aerial spraying information and sign up for e-mail notification of local insecticide treatments by calling the Sacramento-Yolo Mosquito and Vector Control District at (800) 429-1022 or (916) 685-1022, or at www.fightthebite.net.
  • Placer County: Residents can get information and obtain mosquitofish by calling the Placer Mosquito Abatement District at (916) 435-2140. For other information, call the Placer West Nile virus line at (530) 889-4001 or go to www.placermosquito.org or www.placer.ca.gov/wnv.
  • Butte County: Residents can go to www.buttecountypublichealth.org or call (800) 339-2941.
  • Anyone with concerns about the health effects of spraying can call the California Poison Control number at (800) 876-4766.
  • Other Web sites: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, www.cdc.gov; state Department of Health Services, www.westnile.ca.gov.
  • Prevention tips

    To reduce the risk of catching West Nile virus, the Sacramento-Yolo Mosquito and Vector Control District recommends:

    • Use an effective mosquito repellent containing ingredients such as DEET, Picaridin or oil of lemon eucalyptus.
  • Repair tears in door and window screens.
  • Drain standing water.
  • Wear long pants and long sleeves outdoors when practical.
  • Avoid being outside at dawn and dusk, when mosquitoes are most active.
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