MOORLACH UPDATE — Vector Control District — September 18, 2014

At the behest of several Orange County Vector Control District (OCVCD) Trustees, I was appointed by the Board of Supervisors to serve on OCVCD Board. There were plenty of reasons to be involved with this small mosquito abatement district (see MOORLACH UPDATE — OCBJ — March 9, 2009). Within a year, the biggest reform was accomplished (see MOORLACH UPDATE OC Register March 26, 2010 and MOORLACH UPDATE OCBJ April 19, 2010). My five years on this Board have seen plenty of action, reform and reorganization. Im happy to say that things have calmed down. But, this spring the Board was asked to approve a $10 million marketing proposal, with no advance briefings, and an immediate drop dead date. This is not a way to run a small district. The OC Register covers the subsequent history and the opportunity to have some resolution at todays OCVCD Board meeting. If you wish to weigh in with feedback, you have until 2 p.m. to do so (I will also check my e-mails during the OCVCD committee and Board meetings this afternoon).

The only UPDATE that focused specifically on the OCVCD is MOORLACH UPDATE OC Register March 26, 2010. It explains that a white paper was prepared at my request for more information about the agency and its relationship to the Countys Agricultural Commissioner. The former general manager of OCVCD was under the incorrect assumption that I wanted to merge his agency into the County. What was the conclusion of the white paper? To not merge. Why? Because of the Silicon Valley Taxpayers Association, Inc., v. Santa Clara County Open Space Authority California Supreme Court decision (see http://calafco.org/docs/Court_Decisions/Supreme_Court-Benefit_Assessment.PDF and http://www.therecorder.com/id=1202422975004/Silicon-Valley-Taxpayers-Association-Inc-v-Santa-Clara-County-Open-Space-Authority?slreturn=20140818132425). Being consistent with my concern about special benefits (Article XIII D of the California Constitution), it is the closing topic of the piece.

Watchdog: Vector control wants to spread its message, spread its costs

$1 million museum exhibit, hike in property assessment, are on the agenda.

By TERI SFORZA / STAFF COLUMNIST

The Orange County Vector Control District, which has spawned a brouhaha over plans to fumigate central Orange County to stop the spread of West Nile virus, often feels woefully misunderstood.

So today, the board will consider contracting with the Discovery Science Center for a decade of exhibit space costing $1 million averaging out to $100,000 a year.

Sound like a lot of money? It could have been more.

One solution put forth last year: A $10 million permanent exhibit and educational partnership with the Discovery Cube in Santa Ana, paid for, primarily, with property tax dollars.

Too expensive, vector control officials said. So they went back to the drawing board, shrank the project to $5.7 million and asked vector controls 35-member board of directors for approval in the spring.

One of the most important charges tasked of the District is to meaningfully engage and educate Orange County residents of the dangers of vectors and vector borne disease, said a report on the revised proposal. The objective of this education is to elicit positive behavioral changes that will reduce the need for chemical or physical interventions.

Unfortunately, delivering District messages to elementary school children has historically proven to be a daunting task, the report lamented. While the cost of the program is substantial, the opportunity to reach the largest and most focused target audience in the Districts history is a great opportunity, the report went on.

The partnership included an immersive vector education exhibit at the museum for 10 years ($2.5 million); in-class elementary school instruction with take-home assignments ($2 million); and a community education marketing campaign ($1.2 million).

REALLY?

Now, several board members wondered if the plan might be a bit too rich and declined to vote right away, asking staff to explore funding options instead. And in June, General Manager Mike Hearst tried to pull the plug.

He recommended that the board not move forward with the $2.5 million science center proposal, and instead direct staff to seek out other youth education opportunities. The board agreed, sort of. But the museum idea seemed so good that it asked staffers to keep working on some sort of science center collaboration.

So vector control and Discovery Cube scaled back the vision even more. Last month, they proposed a smaller exhibit of about 700 square feet that would cost $1 million, featuring a cast of animatronic characters who guide visitors through who-done-it vector control missions in a laboratory environment.

But vector control staff had largely soured on the idea.

When staff was polled the overwhelming opinion was that there were more important projects that needed attention first, an August report to the board says.

Some of the projects? Our vehicle maintenance and fabrication building was declared surplus by the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1947 and should be replaced in the very near future. Scientific Technical Services are for the most part in the Laboratory Building except for pathology lab, which is in a corner of the car barn, the report said.

Committing funds to the Discovery Science Center project would be fiscally irresponsible when our ability to respond to potential vector situations may be compromised.

UM, REALLY

What a difference the worst West Nile virus season ever can make.

As of Sept. 13, Orange County had logged 127 infections and three deaths from West Nile virus, which is carried by mosquitoes, according to statistics from the Orange County Health Care Agency. The hardest hit city has been in Santa Ana, with 48 infections.

Vector controls plan to spray those most hard-hit areas put on hold because of the crazy weather whipped up some virulent opposition and made officials realize that they had some work to do.

Public awareness and partnership in vector control issues is critical to the effectiveness of the programs and services provided, says the latest proposal, which will be voted on by the board of directors today.

Recent events have shown a lack of understanding by the public of their role in mosquito control. This has hampered our disease suppression throughout the county, especially in underserved populations. Orange County leads the nation in human West Nile virus cases and disease prevalence in mosquitoes in 2014.

Controversy generated over the Districts truck mounted adult mosquito fogging announcement revealed the lack of understanding the public has about what we do, how we do it, and their role in effective mosquito control, the proposal says.

Hearst, who had reservations, now favors the idea: Its not that were not known, its that were not understood. This is our opportunity to tell the complete story.

To tell that story, the staff recommends a hike of about $1 a parcel that would bring in some $500,000 annually.

MONEY

Like so many special districts, vector control is not hurting for cash. It had a cushion of almost 70 percent of what it spends in a year.

So why would it need it need to hike assessments when it already has so much money in the bank? Couldnt it pay out of reserves?

It probably could, Hearst said and that is the recommendation he will make to the board today. Still, the $1-a-parcel assessment increase will likely be necessary to replenish coffers after a virulent West Nile virus season that has required a great deal of overtime.

Financially, the district bears an unwieldy burden in the form of periodic payments to the Orange County Employees Retirement System: It pulled out of OCERS in favor of the big state retirement system years ago, but it still owes OCERS millions to cover unfunded liabilities.

Another big concern of Supervisor John Moorlach, who represents the county on the vector control board: Nearly half of vector controls budget $4.1million comes from the per-parcel assessment approved by voters in 2004 to combat fire ants. But no vector control district has been able to prove that such a parcel tax will stand up under Proposition 218, Moorlach said, and he suspects that raising the assessment alongside funding a museum exhibit (even a really cool one) might invite legal challenges.

Prop. 218 required voter approval for tax hikes, and said that charges for a government service cant exceed the cost of providing it. Prop. 218 has also been interpreted as requiring a direct link between the charge and the benefit.

You live in Laguna Beach and we fight fire ants in La Habra, Moorlach said by way of illustration. You have no direct benefit. You might not have fire ants in your yard in Laguna Beach. No one has taken a vector control district to court on it yet, but my legal research shows that if someone did, we would lose.

Hearst is aware of the concerns, but thinks the district is on firm legal ground.

Contact the writer: tsforzaTwitter: @ocwatchdog

Vector money

Vector Control spent $9.4 million at the close of fiscal year 2013.

Its primary sources of revenue were property tax and benefit assessments, which totaled $11.4 million.

It had accumulated "unrestricted net assets" what some might call "cash" of $6.5 million.

Source: Vector Control audited financial statements, agenda reports

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