Bad Blood: Montezuma County clashes with the mosquito-control district

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MONTEZUMA MOSQUITO CONTROL DISTRICT

The Montezuma Mosquito Control District was recently ordered to
vacate this Quonset hut located in the county road yard, where the
district has been for nearly 40 years. Photo by Gail Binkly.

For nearly four decades, the Montezuma Mosquito Control District has operated out of the county road-equipment yard off Highway 145 in Cortez, the result of a handshake agreement in the 1970s.

But on April 18, the county commissioners voted 3-0 to tell the district to get out – even though the district constructed and owns the two modest buildings where it houses its office and equipment needed for battling mosquitoes in the sprawling district.

“They can pick up their buildings and take them with them,” Commissioner Keenan Ertel said.

The district reportedly was given until the end of May to vacate.

The extraordinary order came after increasing discord between the two government entities, including a clash at a meeting of the mosquito district’s board attended by Commission Chair Larry Don Suckla, who said the county’s concerns were rudely rebuffed.

Suckla said the county had become increasingly concerned about the fact that the special district – which is a separate entity with its own elected board, funded by its own mill levy – has not been putting out for bid its contract for mosquito- control services.

Since 1999, the district has contracted with Denver-based Colorado Mosquito Control to suppress the biting, disease-carrying insects.

Suckla said because the contract was not competitive, the amount increased every year, until it exceeded the revenues raised by the mill levy, at which time the company agreed to take a lesser amount.

“I would say No. 1 (among the county’s concerns) is the $68,000 in taxpayer money they wasted last year,” Suckla said. “They’ve had the same outfit for 14 years without putting a bid out.”

The district raises close to $200,000 annually from its levy.

“Because they never put it out for bid,” Suckla said, “they had a progressive increase for the contract every year, they made a sorry deal, and it got up to $258,000. Well, they were only bringing in around $200,000.

“Apparently they must have had some reserves – I don’t know all the details of their finances.

“For three years we have tried to get them to do something different.”

He said finally the board told the company, “ ‘All we got is $190,000’ and they (the company) said ‘That’s fine.’ “So in my opinion, the year before, they wasted $68,000 by not putting it out for bid.”

Suckla said he went to a recent meeting of the mosquito board and it became “very aggressive.”

“All this information started flowing and I made them mad because I said, ‘If you got the mosquito district’s yearly (budget) down $68,000, are you going to ask for a mill levy reduction so taxpayers aren’t paying as much?’

“And then I was told that was a stupid thing to say.

“As the topic got heated I said, ‘Well, then the county might think about putting you out there where you can rent another building.’ One of their board members stated to me, ‘I wouldn’t go there if I was you’.”

“I have no idea what he meant, but I went there.”

Suckla said wasn’t sure if it were actually a decision of the new board to renew the contract, or if someone made a phone call and “just did it.”

He said he believes there was someone else interested in bidding.

“I don’t know that for sure, but I believe if they were to put that out for bid – the statement was made, ‘We can’t find anyone cheaper than this because it’s $68,000 cheaper than it was last year.’

“Then our statement was, how in the world do you know if you didn’t put it out for bid that you might possibly get it cheaper than the $190,000? There’s no way of knowing.”

The county also had become concerned by a Dec. 14, 2015, letter from the state Department of Local Affairs’ Division of Local Government to the mosquito district threatening to disband it because, “Based upon the information available to the Division, it appears that the district: Has failed to hold or properly cancel the May 8, 2012 regular election; Has failed to hold or properly cancel the May 6, 2014 regular election.” Those elections would have been for people to serve on the five-member board.

Jason Carruth, an employee of Colorado Mosquito Control who since 1999 has served as office manager for the district, said, like many special districts, the mosquito district doesn’t generally attract a lot of people wanting to serve on its board. “Often people serve until they pass away,” he said. In addition, the cost of holding an election can be in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Recently, he said, two board members resigned and two other people were found to replace them.

Carruth said he had spoken with the state special-district administrator and learned it is fairly common for a special district to have issues around filing paperwork. He said the district allayed the concerns expressed in the letter and is now “100 percent up to date” on its filings, and there are no plans for the district to be dissolved.

He said district by-laws don’t require contracts to be put out to competitive bid.

Carruth called the county’s notice to vacate “pretty much a travesty.”

He said the county had never approached the district about taking over the buildings and offering a fair price.

“This is a special district that supports the county by trying to reduce the risk of diseases that are mosquito-borne, as well as the nuisance. It would be different if this had been an ongoing thing where they had approached us and said, ‘What can we do to buy the buildings from you or make it right so you get compensated for the buildings you own?’ ”

The district has been in the county yard for decades, he said. “In 1977 or so the commissioners at that time saw a fledgling district that had been hopping from rental place to rental place, so they put up this space within the county yard.” At that time the mosquito district shared it with the weed district, until the weed program moved into its own building next door.

Suckla said because no formal agreement exists between the county and the district as far as occupying the buildings, there has been no decision on any compensation.

Although its name may imply otherwise, the Montezuma Mosquito Control District is not operated or overseen by county government. It is a special district, a taxing entity unto itself, as are the Montezuma County Hospital District, Cortez Sanitation District, Dolores Water Conservancy District, or numerous other such entities. Board members are publicly elected when there are enough candidates to require an election, and meetings are open to the public.

Most special districts operate out of the limelight unless controversy erupts.

The mosquito district became the subject of considerable debate in the late 1990s, when concerns arose about the traditional method of mosquito control, which involved trucks trundling along county roads and city streets, spraying Malathion on summer nights. Despite its ominous-sounding name, the chemical is considered relatively benign for human beings, although it can cause reactions in sensitive individuals. However, it smells foul. And, because it is a broad-spectrum insecticide, it kills a host of insects, including ladybugs and bees, and is considered highly toxic to aquatic invertebrates and tadpoles.

Back then, numerous citizens complained about the chemical drifting onto their property even though they had posted “No spray” signs. Gardeners who otherwise grew chemical-free drops said the drift prevented them from selling their produce as organic.

An article in the Sept. 2, 1997, Montezuma Valley Journal stated, “Locally, the mosquito-control program sparks more complaints to the Montezuma County administration office, on a long-term basis, than just about any other issue. Office personnel field about a dozen calls a day during the summer months, many from angry citizens who refuse to believe the county is not in charge of the program. Some of the calls want more spraying, say county personnel, while others want it stopped.”

In 1999, the mosquito district contracted with Colorado Mosquito Control to handle the situation. Carruth, a local resident who is employed by CMC, became the district’s general manager. On its website, Colorado Mosquito Control says it provides service to more than 80 county, municipal and large-scale accounts across Colorado, including the Denver metro area, using “integrated pest management,” which involves a variety of control methods that begin with control of larvae in ponds.

The website says company managers have more than 100 years of combined mosquito-control experience and that it employs a staff entomologist. “Colorado Mosquito Control and management staff are all proud and active members of the American Mosquito Control Association and the West Central Mosquito and Vector Control Association and undergo extensive training,” it says.

Since the district adopted the integrated approach, scaling back fogging and using chemicals other than Malathion when it does employ airborne control, there has been seemingly little drama – until now.

“In the last 16 or 17 years there has been very little controversy,” Carruth said. “We run a very intensive integrated mosquito-management program to attack mosquitoes in all their vulnerable stages.” He noted that the district, which includes most of the county, is “giant.” “Montezuma County has a very large program and we have a large company that can make a response.”

The company hires eight to 10 seasonal employees during the warm months, he said, often college students. “We’ll do some training and then we’ll start out inspecting sites for mosquito treatment. We’ll start getting calls in a couple weeks.”

Carruth said he logs calls received and responds to everyone who requests service. But Suckla said things are not so rosy and the county has received complaints from constituents.

“The county is wanting the phone calls we have received – people saying, ‘I have called them three times and they won’t call me back,’ or another saying, ‘I called them and they said we have no money to come out and spray’ – we just want that fixed.

“All we want is better management – that’s all it needs and we could have a better mosquito district. The county has no intentions of wanting to take over the mosquito district.

“A statement was made in that [board] meeting that everything is fine in the county and there aren’t hardly any mosquitoes. Well, I can tell you story after story that I’ve heard from different areas of the county that they’ve got a problem and they’re not addressing it.”

Suckla also voiced concern about maps developed by Colorado Mosquito Control that reportedly show where its efforts have been implemented. “There is a set of maps that shows where all these pools of water are in the county, and when we asked for these maps, we were told by the district that it is proprietary information and that the county cannot have those and even the (mosquito district) board can’t have them, that it’s that company’s (property).

“How in the world could you be a manager protecting the county and let something like that take place? If this company just up and left, you could not get those maps.

“I don’t think the district has been managed very well – I know it hasn’t. I don’t think they even asked for the maps until we brought it up and then they told us no.”

Suckla was skeptical of the board’s claim it has trouble recruiting new members. “It’s really hard to get someone to run for a board if you don’t hold an election, which they did not for six years. They broke the law.

“If they were out of compliance because they didn’t hold an election for six years, then that means they would not actually be board members who would have authority to reissue the contract . . . because they didn’t follow the law. So how could they have the authority to reissue the contract if they’re not technically board members?”

He also said it was difficult to find information about the board.

Carruth said the board usually meets monthly on second Tuesdays during the mosquito season, at attorney Kelly Mc- Cabe’s office, and he believes the meeting notices are posted in the courthouse and/or City Market.

He referred such questions to the board, but no one on the group could be reached except Jim Fisher, a new member who said he hadn’t even been sworn in yet. The listed number for Eldon Simmons, the chair, was disconnected and he did not return a message left at the office of the Mancos Rural Water District, where he works. Another board member, Travis Willbanks, did not return a phone message. Contact information could not be found for the other members, one of whom, like Fisher, is brand-new.

McCabe also did not return a phone message from the Free Press.

Fisher said a neighbor had told him the district needed people to serve on the board and suggested he throw his hat in the ring. Having recently retired from the Dolores Water Conservancy District board, Fisher decided he had time to do it.

Later, he said, a woman with McCabe’s office called to say he had gotten the seat because there were no challengers. Only after that did he read an article in the Cortez Journal about the county ousting the district from the county yard. “It was a surprise to me,” Fisher said. He said he’s heard rumors about hidden motives behind the kerfuffle but didn’t know their veracity.

Regarding the idea of putting the contract up for bid, he said he found it “upsetting” that the district had not.

“If there’s somebody locally qualified, I would give them a preference,” he said. “That would be my goal, to make sure we investigate locals.”

As far as being in the county yard, he said, “It seems like a logical place to be.” However, Fisher said he’d heard the district had recently found a new location.

“I think they do good things,” he said of the district.

Carruth said the timing for the eviction was bad because the district is just gearing up for the coming season.

“We’re starting a program in the next week or so, so it’s kind of important to get on it fast so we can stay ahead of it. Now it looks like we’ll probably be moving to another building while this is going on.”

As a longtime area resident and a taxpayer, he said, he is annoyed that the county is spending time and money to evict a special district from a building. “It seems like pretty poor timing, for not even legitimate reasons.

“But we will adjust and I’m sure we’ll do fine.”


The shift to newer methods

The following is from the website for Colorado Mosquito Control, the company currently performing pest-management services in Montezuma County:

“The Montezuma Mosquito Control District has traditionally controlled mosquito populations by targeting the adult (flying) stage of the insect. This method has focused on the application of the chemical insecticide malathion via airborne ULV (ultra-low volume) spraying. Controlling mosquitoes using only chemical means has come under heavy environmental and political pressure in many parts of the country over the past several years, including Montezuma County. Chemical insecticides have the advantage of being easy to apply, and usually work quite well in the short term. But, these chemical ULV insecticide applications have no residual and last only a short while, generally only a few days, making repeated applications necessary. As many as 18 applications per season had been applied in past years. This became quite an expensive proposition and over time began to provide diminishing returns. Over a period of years mosquitoes can develop resistance to a chemical which has been applied repeatedly, and its effectiveness is lost.

“The Montezuma Mosquito Control District Board recognized these problems and in 1999 contracted Colorado Mosquito Control to provide a comprehensive, modern program designed around the scientific principles of Integrated Pest Management. (IPM). To combat the problems associated with chemical fogging for adult mosquito control, CMC has developed a program which targets larval (aquatic stage) mosquitoes and utilizes field surveillance, scientifically timed biological (non-chemical) control methods and least-toxic materials. The implementation of this program over the past three years has provided a dramatic shift from a program which was 100% chemically based, to one which has, over a three-year period, dropped the use of chemical adulticides to approximately 10% of the original program.”

 

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From May 2016.