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Pest Unit's Private Jobs Test Limits

An Orange County agency sparks questions with outside work and bonuses to employees.

August 04, 2003|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

At a time when government is being asked to do more with less money, one obscure public agency believes it has found the answer.

The Orange County Vector Control District, charged with controlling mosquitoes and other disease-transmitting pests, sells extra services to other government agencies and even one business, Disney's California Adventure theme park. This lets the district not only stay on budget, but also turn a profit.

To help motivate employees, the district shares some of the excess cash with its 60-plus workers, who received an average bonus of $2,500 last year.

But the district's biggest outside client, the state Department of Food and Agriculture, is demanding that the agency cancel the bonuses. And private pest control companies question why they are being forced to compete with a public agency whose trucks and equipment are funded in part with their tax dollars.

Until 1999, the Vector Control District operated like most others. Workers were responsible for monitoring Orange County for mosquitoes, rats and other disease-bearing pests and controlling those threats in public areas by setting traps and spraying chemicals. Their work was supported exclusively by an annual assessment -- now $1.92 -- levied on every home and business property in Orange County.

Robert Sjogren, the district's manager, traces the bonus idea to a financial crisis in 1999. At a planning workshop that year, the district's board of directors instructed staff to find creative ways to increase revenue -- or face layoffs.

With the board's approval, the district decided to sell extra services -- including the kind of work pest control companies do -- on the open market. It now has contracts for mosquito control with UC Irvine and the U.S. Naval Weapons Station and for rat and mosquito control with the state Department of Transportation. Disney pays the district $3,000 per year to kill flies that breed in a pond at California Adventure.

Some of the work is performed by district employees during regular business hours and some is done after hours, for which the moonlighting workers are paid overtime.

In 2000, the district acquired another outside contract, this time with the state agriculture department, to control red imported fire ants in south Orange County. The state has paid an average of $2.6 million a year for that work, and the money goes into a fund designated for the district's earnings for extra services.

Sjogren said he suggested sharing the profits out of that fund as a way to compensate his staff for the additional work. In 2001, the board of directors adopted the plan. Two-thirds of the profit from outside work goes back into the district's general fund, where it helps reduce the need for increased assessments on property owners. One-third is distributed in bonuses. The district gave out about $150,000 last year and has set aside $200,000 that was to be paid last month.

Those bonuses are now on hold, however, after the state learned about the bonuses during an audit and fired off an angry letter to Vector Control District officials in June, questioning why a share of the money it paid to eradicate a dangerous pest is instead being divided among government employees.

"We do not dispute the fact that the district is entitled to reasonable overhead costs. However, we do have questions as to whether the disbursements [to employees] are allowable," state agriculture official Pat Minyard wrote.

Sjogren said he doesn't think the state has a right to question how his district spends its money. The state agreed to pay a flat fee for fire ant eradication and the district is performing the work, he said. Besides, he noted, the state is benefiting because his work force is motivated and efficient.

"I have people coming to me one time every week or two identifying how we can save $5,000 here or be more efficient in another area," Sjogren said. "I believe in the free-enterprise system. I think incentives work."

Some observers think the district's strategy might be a good one. "It actually sounds like a pretty innovative way to motivate a work force," said Mark Petracca, a political science professor at UC Irvine and chairman of the Irvine Planning Commission. "And it's a way to maintain an important service function without having to go to the taxpayers and ask for a tax increase."

But at least one district board member says the state's objections may have merit.

"I would question the taxpayers' money being given in bonus forms like that," said the member, Carolyn Cavecche. "That's something the board needs to look into, especially if we're going against what the state money was targeted for: to take care of the red ants."

The bonuses also do not sit well with pest control companies, who in 2000 argued unsuccessfully that they, not a government agency, should handle fire ant control.

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