Mosquito control program nearing an end in Livingston Parish

After two failed tax proposals and the expiration of an assessment fee, Livingston Parish’s mosquito abatement program is on its last legs but determined to go down fighting.

With an increase in the number of West Nile cases reported in the parish this year and half the parish’s traps capturing mosquitoes testing positive for the disease, mosquito abatement Director Jeanine Tessmer said Livingston is putting its money reserves into aerial spraying.

The parish has had four West Nile cases in which people have not shown any symptoms of the disease, two fever cases and one neuroinvasive case reported so far this year. In 2013, the parish saw only one fever case, Tessmer said.

Fighting the mosquito population from the air is considerably more costly than ground-spraying with trucks. Last week’s aerial assault cost as much in three days as the district would typically spend on chemicals for an entire season — about $250,000, Tessmer said.

But the aerial spraying is also more effective, reaching remote areas in this rural parish that trucks can’t cover from the roads, she said.

If people in the area continue to contract West Nile, Tessmer said, she may order another round of aerial spraying in early September.

“I don’t have to worry about keeping money in reserve anymore, so I can use it this year,” Tessmer said. “The circumstances certainly warrant it.”

The district doesn’t need to maintain reserves because, without the assessment fee or a property tax, there will be no more funding coming in and, after this year, no more mosquito control program in the parish.

The program has been plagued with money problems since its creation in 2002. It survived its first season on borrowed trucks and rainy-day funding for pesticides until voters in 2003 approved a 10-year, $30 annual fee assessed to residents with electric meters.

Then came collection problems as the electric companies, assessor and Sheriff’s Office each declined to take on the responsibility of collecting the funds and, year after year, many residents simply refused to pay.

Parish voters also swatted down several property tax proposals, with the most recent attempts being in November 2012 and October 2013.

The expiration of the annual fee on Dec. 31 was the final blow.

The district is paying for its 2014 operations from $2 million in reserve funding, according to an audit the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office released Monday.

Those funds should be enough to sustain the program — which cost roughly $1 million in 2013 — through the end of the year, even with the additional expense of aerial spraying to combat West Nile. But the program will be shuttered before next year’s crop of mosquitoes takes flight.

“We will not be here. The equipment will not be here. There will be nobody doing mosquito control in Livingston Parish next year, period,” Tessmer said. District employees will lose their jobs and all equipment will be sold at the end of the season, Tessmer said.

The money raised through selling the district’s assets — about $400,000 in equipment and vehicles, according to the audit — will be used to fund the shutdown.

“We’ll have to pay the salaries of whoever is left until we can get all the records in order and turned over to someone else — I don’t know who — in parish government,” Tessmer said. “Someone else will have to take this over and be made aware of what we have and how things are done.”

Any funds remaining at that point will be transferred to the parish to be spent according to their voter-approved purpose of mosquito abatement, she said.

Voters’ decision not to fund the program may bite them in the end, when the mosquito population increases and residents are “screaming and hollering” in their yards, Tessmer said.

By then, though, the program will be dead and the job of reviving it, time-consuming, she said.

“Because it takes time to go to the ballot for funding, collect the money when it comes in, hire a director, get the necessary equipment, get it operational and get people trained,” Tessmer said. “We’re talking 21/2 to 3 years, minimum.”

Tessmer said that after two years of fighting to inform the public about why the program needed funding, and this year of focusing on both fighting West Nile and also organizing the program’s shutdown, she is exhausted.

“We’ll spend whatever is necessary, then close up shop and go home,” she said.

“There are just too many people everywhere, not just in this parish, who have the mindset that they want the government to provide services, but they don’t want to pay for it. It just doesn’t work that way.”

Follow Heidi R. Kinchen on Twitter, @HeidiRKinchen.