The peculiar clash over mosquito control

The dispute between the Montezuma County commissioners and the Montezuma Mosquito Control District is one of the strangest clashes involving local-government entities in recent years.

On April 18, the commissioners voted 3-0 to oust the district from its office in a modest building – constructed and owned by the district – but sitting in the county road yard.

Montezuma County has no direct oversight over special districts, of which there are many in the local area – the hospital and sanitation districts, cemetery districts, and so on. They are separate entities with their own boards and their own mill levies. It’s highly unusual for the county to weigh in on how one of them should be managed. We can’t think of another such incident except when the county — at the request of hundreds of constituents — asserted a nominal amount of influence into the Montezuma County Hospital District in the 1990s, with the district’s agreement.

In this case, the county appears to have become interested in the district’s doings because the district board recently received a slap on the wrist from the Department of Local Affairs for running a sloppy ship – i.e., not adhering to regulations about holding elections and advertising vacancies on the board – but it has reportedly taken steps to rectify this. District representatives say there weren’t enough people interested in running, a fairly common situation with many local boards. Financial compensation for serving is minimal and other “rewards” generally include hearing from disgruntled citizens.

The commission also believes the annual contract for keeping mosquitoes at bay should be put out to bid. Colorado Mosquito Control, which operates statewide and is part of a global company, has been the contractor for the past 17 years, and the commissioners say they want to see if taxpayers could get a better deal from another company.

This seems reasonable, but the commissioners’ emphasis on seeking a local entity may be misplaced. Local preference in hiring is generally a good thing, but if anyone else is going to compete for the mosquito-control contract, that person or entity needs to be qualified. The days of simply hauling sprayers around and fogging the entire countryside with chemicals are over. Mosquito control has become a science-based effort that integrates biological control of larvae while still in the water with control of adult, airborne insects.

Mosquito control was hugely controversial in the county prior to 1999, when the district switched from the traditional control methods to the new and contracted with CMC to do the work.

This isn’t to say CMC is above criticism or shouldn’t face competition, nor that local people could not be just as qualified, with training. But it’s unclear why this is the county commissioners’ concern. It also should be kept in mind that the district’s entire purpose is mosquito control. True, if it shaves a few dollars off its budget through a cheaper contractor, it could return that money to voters by lowering the mill levy, but it wouldn’t amount to more than a few dollars per person in a year. Then, if climate change causes a crisis such as an invasion of new mosquito species carrying tropical disease, the district would have to hold an election to ask for that money back again — and elections cost real money. Efficiency is good, but bargain-basement mosquito control is probably not the way to go.

Nearly 40 years ago, the county and the mosquito district were so friendly, the county offered them space in its yard just as a helpful gesture. Now, a fractious relationship has arisen between the entities, which had a rather stormy get-together recently that apparently produced more bile than milk and honey, thus triggering the eviction notice.

Like many other special districts, the mosquito-control district has a big mission to perform on a limited budget, which is funded through a mill levy that generates around $200,000 annually.

And while it may not be perfect, the five-member board appears to be doing an adequate job of keeping the pesky devils from eating us alive: There have been no mosquito-borne epidemics ravaging our livestock, pets or selves.

The commissioners have criticized the district board as not very transparent, and that particular concern seems justified. While the office manager, CMC employee Jason Carruth, is easy to reach, the board members are maddeningly difficult to get hold of. It’s disappointing that there is no information online about the board or when it meets, and no contact information. The chairman, another board member, and the district’s (former? current? we don’t know) attorney all failed to return phone calls from the Free Press. Members of public boards need to be available to speak to the public and press, or they shouldn’t serve.

But, again, this really isn’t the county’s purview. It’s up to electors in the mosquito district to complain if they become dissatisfied, and if there are enough, change will come.

Still, with the very real, looming threat of the Zika virus (which can have disastrous consequences for pregnant woman) and the mosquito that carries it (which is expanding further north than first predicted), along with ongoing threats of mosquito-spread West Nile virus and encephalitis, the timely and competent treatment of the insects’ major breeding grounds is more important than ever.

Which raises the question of why the county commissions chose this critical time – with the mosquito season just ahead – to evict the district. Relocating its headquarters just as the employees are gearing up to combat the annual plague of bloodsuckers is bound to make the overall effort less focused and effective. What was the emergency?

We’ve heard the district has found a new home, but if not, we urge the commissioners to wait to kick them out of the county facility until this year’s control efforts are over – and to try to fashion a more harmonious relationship with the district board, which has two new members. It sounds as though some of the current dispute is driven by personality clashes, but everyone needs to take a breath and move beyond such issues.

We’d all like to see the district managed as efficiently and effectively as possible. Egos and muscle-flexing on either side should not get in the way of public safety. R.I.P., nasty bugs.

From Editorials.