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Fire Ant Funds Being Halted

In light of the state's finances, the program to eradicate the pests no longer will be subsidized. O.C. vector district manager resigns.

September 19, 2003|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

Efforts to battle the red imported fire ant in Orange County appeared to be in jeopardy Thursday after the state said it would stop funding the program and the director of the agency leading the fight resigned.

The Department of Food and Agriculture has announced that it intends to stop funding the fire ant program in light of state finances. The insect first became a problem in the late 1990s, hitting Orange and parts of Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and San Diego counties.

Those counties were notified this week that funding for the statewide program would be discontinued in October. State and local officials said they hoped to keep the eradication effort alive with new state, local, federal and private money. It was a $5.2-million-a-year program, with more than $2 million going to Orange County.

The fire ants, believed to have arrived in the United States in the 1930s aboard cargo ships, are known for fierce bites that leave victims with painful, itchy welts. They also have been known to kill wildlife such as quail and deer and devour crops, including citrus, strawberries and corn.

One potential source of revenue to continue the fight in Orange County is roughly $250,000 that the vector district has set aside to pay bonuses to its employees; the bonuses have been criticized by state agriculture officials.

Robert Sjogren, who advocated the bonus payouts, resigned as manager of the vector district at Thursday's meeting of the agency's board of directors.

He told the board he wanted to spend more time with his family, but declined to discuss the decision after the meeting.

Board members received news of his resignation shortly before they were to review an audit of district management.

The bonuses were funded by work the district did to fight the fire ants for such customers as UC Irvine, Disneyland and Caltrans. The work was beyond the vector agency's direct mission for the county's 34 cities, so officials said they were allowed to pay the bonuses.

Orange County Supervisor Bill Campbell scheduled a meeting Monday with local agriculture and vector officials to consider options to continue the four-year fight. "I'm going to look at bonus money. I'm going to try to find money wherever I can," he said. "We're not going to give up. Everything is open for discussion."

Assemblyman Todd Spitzer (R-Orange), who as an Orange County supervisor helped secure funding for the fire-ant battle, said state agriculture officials should look elsewhere to make their cuts. "If we don't control these pests, we will have forever affected our quality of life in Orange County," he said. "It will forever change how you use the outdoors."

In 1999, the Board of Supervisors allotted more than $6 million in state funds to target the fire ant, which at the time had infested more than 500 square miles of the county.

The board gave the contract to the Orange County Vector Control District, which today directs 24 full-time and seven part-time workers to battle the fire ants. They are treating more than 25,000 active fire-ant colonies in Orange County.

Vector officials say the program, which uses a slow-acting sterilization agent, has been widely successful but has not eradicated the insect.

Friction between state agriculture and Orange County vector officials surfaced this summer, when state officials questioned bonuses that the vector agency paid its employees with state money.

Starting in 2002, vector officials took money from some of its jobs, including the fire-ant program, and divided it among all employees in bonuses. They said they were able to complete the contracts with enough money left over to reward employees. After state agriculture officials complained, the vector district froze about $250,000 it intended to pay out in bonuses this year.

Spitzer said Thursday the dispute might hurt Orange County's chances to obtain additional state funding, and urged that the $250,000 be spent on the fire ant program. "People are going to lose their jobs. Are they going to complain now about recapturing that bonus money? They'd be foolish to," he said. "I'm sure they'll make the smart decision and use that money to keep the program going."

Michael Hearst, spokesman for the Orange County Vector Control District, said the bonus money could fund the fire ant program for a month. He said the vector district was close to winning the battle against the fire ant. "It's just a real disappointment we got as close as we did and have as much invested as do and they're going to cut it off before we finish."

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