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State official: Bug funds not enough

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By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — State entomologist Jon Turmel warned lawmakers on Monday that Vermont will need to hatch a larger revenue stream to fund its annual battle against mosquitoes, or risk seeing the pesky insects multiply dramatically and bring life threatening diseases into the Green Mountain State in the years to come.

Turmel made the comments during a meeting in Middlebury that saw local legislators, insect-control district officials and municipal leaders discuss this year’s hefty mosquito population and the lack of funds available to battle the insects.

“It’s no longer just a nuisance; it’s now a way of life,” Turmel said of the annual mosquito problem.

Currently, 10 percent of the money the state collects in motorboat registration fees is used to pay for larvicide to drop in communities that are a part of state-approved insect control districts. Motorboat registration fees have been generating between $45,000 and $85,00 per year for mosquito larvicide, according to Turmel.

Until recently, however, the towns of Brandon, Leicester, Salisbury and Goshen had comprised the only insect control district in the state. That’s changed during the past several months, as Bridport and Cornwall have formed the Lemon Fair Insect Control District, and Weybridge voted last month to create its own district.

In addition, Shoreham, Whiting, Middlebury and Pittsford have each discussed adopting mosquito programs in recent months.

Creation of more districts would mean the  state’s larvicide money would have to be spread thinner and thinner. As it is — with only two districts up and running —  the state spent $180,000 (thanks to some accruing reserves) on larvicide this year.

“We are now out of funds,” Turmel said. “We won’t be able to start (dropping larvicide) in the spring, the way it is now.”

State officials on Monday stressed that the mosquito problem should not be perceived as just a warm weather inconvenience to the owners of expensive homes in the Lake Dunmore/Otter Creek areas.

“We now know how important it is to tourism,” Turmel said.

He recalled how prospective tourists from as far away as France cancelled their Vermont vacations back in 1989, when the state’s mosquito woes made national headlines. The extent of those woes was graphically illustrated in footage of then-Gov. Madeleine Kunin being swarmed by mosquitoes during a visit to Brandon.

Neil Mackey, whose family rents out nine seasonal cabins near Lake Dunmore, said some regular out-of-state visitors have decided to take a pass on cabin rentals this year.

“They didn’t want to deal with mosquitoes,” Mackey said.

The Lake Dunmore/Fern Lake Association, of which Mackey is the president, recently contributed $10,000 to help the Brandon-Leicester-Salisbury-Goshen Insect Control District buy two new, pre-owned trucks from which to spray against adult mosquitoes.

Ultimately, however, the state will have to get more involved to make a substantial impact, according to Mackey.

“I think we have to say this is a statewide problem, and we need to bite the bullet,” Mackey said.

Mosquitoes have been increasingly winging their way into northern Addison County communities, according Vergennes Mayor April Jin. Jin, who lives near the Otter Creek, said she used to occasionally pick mosquitoes off her cats.

“Now, the cats are riding in on the backs of the mosquitoes,” she said wryly.

“I think you’re going to find a who lot of towns that are interested in (mosquito control services),” Jin said.

Turmel acknowledged that consecutive bad years of mosquito problems have scientists concerned about what the future may hold. They are particularly concerned that the bugs will soon be bringing more than itchy welts to people they sting. The West Nile Virus and Eastern Equine Encephalitis are examples of two potentially deadly diseases that could fly in on the wings of mosquitoes. With that in mind, neighboring Massachusetts is launching an aggressive program to eliminate mosquitoes that may be carrying the disease.

Unfortunately, federal money is drying up in the fight against West Nile Virus, according to Turmel. Only four years ago, the national Centers for Disease Control had made $198,000 available to Vermont to establish program to guard against the virus. Next year, the state anticipates receiving around $40,000, according to Turmel.

“They’ve moved a huge amount of money to Avian Influenza,” Turmel said.

Based on feedback from Monday’s meeting, state and local insect-control officials vowed to:

• Develop some firm estimates on what it would cost to run a statewide mosquito control program.

• Request that Gov. James Douglas establish, beginning with his next budget proposal, a “mosquito program” line item. House and Senate budget writers will be asked to do the same.

• Encourage the Legislature to consider new rules that would allow for counties to establish their own mosquito control districts. Officials reasoned that communities could see some financial savings by operating their programs along county lines.

Vermont Senate Majority Leader John Campbell, a Windsor County Democrat, said he would “help in any way I can” to get additional resources to battle mosquitoes. He stressed it will take the support of lawmakers throughout the state to get more money for the cause.

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