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Orange County

Officials May Seek $4-a-Year Tax Increase for Fire Ant Fight

September 20, 2003|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

The Orange County Vector Control District may ask homeowners for an additional $4 a year to pay for its suddenly underfunded fight against the red imported fire ant, a district spokesman said Friday.

But some members of the district's board of directors say they oppose increasing the tax, which would generate about $3 million a year.

The funding crisis surfaced this week when the state Department of Food and Agriculture announced that because of the state's fiscal crunch, it is cutting off funds for the fire-ant eradication program.

Orange County had received about $2.6 million a year to eradicate the venomous insects, which are known to attack humans and wildlife and damage agriculture.

Without state funding, the vector district can't sustain its ant war, a district spokesman said. It is currently treating more than 25,000 fire ant sites, mostly in South County.

While also pursuing federal, state and local funding, the district is contemplating the increased tax on homeowners, said spokesman Michael Hearst.

Property owners already pay a $1.92 assessment in the property tax bill each year to the vector district -- money it also uses to control mosquitoes, rats and other threats to public health.

Hearst said homeowners might prefer the $4 increase over hiring private pest control companies to treat a fire-ant infestation at their homes.

"That's like 33 cents a month," Hearst said. "As an Orange County resident, I know what I'd vote for."

The tax would first have to be approved by the district's directors and then be put to a vote of property owners.

The cost of mailing the ballots and tabulating the results could reach $1 million.

On Monday, county supervisors, the county's agriculture chief and Assemblyman Todd Spitzer (R-Orange) plan to discuss the fire ant program.

On Friday, Supervisor Bill Campbell questioned whether an increased homeowners assessment is the best solution.

"I'd be hard-pressed to support it," he said. "This is a long-term tax increase to solve a short-term problem."

Doug Davert, one member of the vector district's 35-member board of directors, also challenged the idea.

"A lot of special districts are having financial problems and are looking at ways to enhance revenue," said Davert, a Tustin councilman.

"The fallback position before any cuts are made is 'Let's just get the taxpayers to get us a little more money.' I don't think that's a very enlightened approach. We're being taxed to death as it is.

"I don't think the vector control district can realistically expect people to support this. I think that's a huge gamble and not one I'm inclined to take at this point."

The district's board of directors is made up of representatives of each of the county's 34 cities plus a countywide representative.

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