Residents vote on funding to fight ‘ninja’ mosquitoes

Delta Mosquito and Vector Control District asks northern county homeowners to tax themselves to stop invasive mosquito carrying deadly diseases

TULARE COUNTY – Tulare County residents have been losing their backyard battle with invasive mosquitoes the last two summers and are voting this month to decide if they want to tax themselves to turn the tide in the war.

On May 26, the board of trustees for the Delta Mosquito and Vector Control District, formerly known as the Delta Vector Control District, initiated the process for a new property tax for mosquito abatement services. The assessment would generate just over $1 million annually for the district specifically to address the invasive mosquito aedes aegypti. Unlike mosquitoes native to California, this smaller breed prefers to feed on human blood rather than animals and has adapted to its food. Native mosquitoes are much larger and prefer to feed on cattle, which have trouble swatting away the mosquitoes, while they take long drinks of blood. The aedes aegypti is often referred to as the “ninja” or “secret” mosquito due to its ability to breed in areas hidden from humans and because it is smaller and harder to see and swat. They also bite day and night, and not just at dawn and dusk, because humans are active at all hours.

District manager Dr. Mustapha Debboun said the invasive breed is not only a nuisance but also a public health issue. Aedes aegypti is also known as the yellow fever mosquito, as it is a carrier for the virus which typically causes fever, headache and nausea but in some cases leads to fatal heart, liver and kidney conditions. It is also a carrier for related viruses such as dengue and chikungunya as well as West Nile and Zika virus.

“This mosquito carries some of the most deadly viruses,” Debboun said. “We don’t want these diseases to spread here or in the rest of the United States.”

While these viruses are not currently transmitted in California, they are periodically introduced by international travelers coming from Mexico, South America and Africa where the disease is most common. If a large population of Aedes aegypti is established in the area, a single travel associated case of one of these diseases could introduce the virus to local mosquitoes and Tulare County residents could be at risk of becoming infected. The mosquito was first discovered by the district in 2012 and has exponentially increased its population in the last three years.

Debboun said money from the assessment would be used to hire more personnel, purchase more equipment and supplies, deploy new strategies and do more public education specific to the aedes aegypti, which has developed a tolerance for traditional pesticides once it reaches adulthood. Debboun said the district will need more technicians in more vehicles to respond quickly to calls from residents about abandoned swimming pools and standing water on their property or in their neighborhood. The district will be buying more and new styles of traps, raise more mosquito-eating fish for property owners to place in backyard ponds and water features, more testing of mosquito-borne illnesses, and educating residents on where the mosquitoes like to breed in stagnant water and how to eliminate standing water from their property.

“We want to take care of people by providing them a better service, but in order to do that, we need people to help themselves by providing us with the means to do that,” Debboun said.

Mosquito money

Known as a Proposition 218 process, the balloting allows those owning property within a district to block the increase if 50% plus one property owner vote against it on a mailed ballot or sign a petition against it. If it passes, home owners will see an additional $12.50 per year on their property taxes if they live in the district, which encompasses most of Tulare County north of Tulare and Lindsay. Those living in remote areas on the northeastern and southeastern edge of the district will be assessed $6.25 per year due to their remote location away from cities. Since the Tulare County Auditor only applies annual assessments of $10 or more, those paying $6.25 may only receive a bill every two years. If approved, the assessment could by increased up to 3% each year. Commercial, industrial and retail would pay the $6.25 rate while office buildings would pay $17.75 per year.

The assessment isn’t necessarily permanent. The district had a previous assessment from 10 years which supported comprehensive mosquito control services as well as the development of the district’s laboratory. The lab helped Delta Vector discover the arrival of the aedes aegypti mosquito in 2014 and test dead animals to discover the arrival of West Nile, Yellow Fever, and Zika virus in Tulare County. The lab also allows the district to breed mosquito eating fish which it offers free to property owners to put in ponds and water features to eat the larvae before they grow into chemically-resistant adults.

This previous assessment expired in 2019 after the development costs of the laboratory had been paid off, leaving the budget short of enough funding to handle the growing population of the invasive mosquito. The new assessment would have to be renewed annually by a majority vote of the district’s board of directors.

“This assessment would be specific to the type of pest posing the greatest risk,” Debboun said. “This mosquito has established itself and we need to take care of the problem.”

Without the new assessment, the district would have to rely on the $5 to $7 per property initiated when the district was formed in 1922. The district’s current funding is just short of $3 million per year. It’s the same charged by surrounding abatement districts such as Tulare Mosquito Abatement District, Kings Mosquito Abatement District and Delano Mosquito Abatement District, all of which cover portions of Tulare County.

Michelle Dempsey, general manager of the Tulare Mosquito Abatement District, said aedes aegypti was discovered in northern Tulare County about three years before the southern portion, making them the expert in the area. She also said Delta Vector has one of the largest coverage areas.

“Delta Vector is doing great things and is always on the cutting edge of mosquito abatement,” Dempsey said. “They are more invested in this and it’s just a matter of years before we have to make similar investments.”

Southeastern Tulare County, including Lindsay, Strathmore and Porterville, is not covered by a mosquito abatement district. Dempsey said the Tulare district has made attempts in the past to broaden its boundaries to include the area but less than 50% of property owners surveyed were in favor of accepting the tax assessment. The Tulare district covers the southwestern portion of Tulare County from Highway 198 to the Kern County line and from the Kings County line to Plainview east of Porterville.

“We get more calls from that area than from the Tulare area,” Dempsey said.

Mosquito meeting

The alternative to a small increase in property taxes to increase abatement is possibly an outbreak of mosquito born illness. An outbreak of West Nile Virus in Sacramento County in 2005 led to 163 people being treated for West Nile fever and neuroinvasive disease. The Sacramento-Yolo Mosquito and Vector Control District had to do an emergency aerial spray. According to a study prepared for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the economic losses due to the outbreak, including medical treatment and spraying and overtime hours, totaled $2.28 million.

“Everything costs money,” Dubboun said, “but ultimately, we serve the residents and it’s up to them if they want us to do more than we are doing now.”

Just last week, the California Department of Public Health announced the first confirmed death in California due to West Nile virus (WNV). The death occurred in San Luis Obispo County.

“West Nile virus activity in the state is increasing, so I urge Californians to take every possible precaution to protect against mosquito bites,” said Dr. Tomás J. Aragón, director of the California Department of Public Health and state public health officer.

That same day, Fresno County health officials confirmed a man in southeast Fresno had been hospitalized due to West Nile, only the second confirmed human case in the state this year.

West Nile virus is transmitted to humans and animals by the bite of an infected mosquito. As of July 9, WNV has been detected in 45 dead birds from six counties and 177 mosquito samples from 13 counties, including 28 from Tulare County. Hot temperatures this month are contributing to increasing numbers of mosquitoes and the increased risk of virus transmission to humans. So far this season, activity is within expected levels. The risk of disease due to WNV usually increases at this time of year and is highest throughout the summer and early fall.

Delta Mosquito District’s assessment ballots must be received by the end of the public hearing set for 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, July 21. The meeting will be held at the district office, located at 1737 W. Houston Ave. in Visalia.

A second special meeting will be held at 4:30 p.m. on July 28 at the district office to announce the results of balloting. If you lose your ballot, require a replacement ballot, or want to change your vote, call Delta MVCD at 559-732-8606 for another ballot.

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