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State Funds Sought to Keep Fighting on Fire-Ant Front

Emergency funds are necessary if the insects are to be eradicated in Orange County, the vector-control agency says. A fee increase seems unlikely.

September 23, 2003|Stuart Pfeifer | Times Staff Writer

State and local officials met Monday in Santa Ana to discuss the future of Orange County's fight against the red imported fire ant, a fight that last week lost its state funding.

Without emergency funding, the four-year effort to eliminate the venomous, stinging insect in the county probably would be shut down, a spokesman for the Orange County Vector Control District said Monday.

The agency has been leading Orange County's battle against the red imported fire ant since 2000 with funding from the state Department of Food and Agriculture. Last week, state officials said they would cut off funding on Oct. 19 because of the state's fiscal crisis.

Assemblyman Todd Spitzer (R-Orange), who attended Monday's meeting, said he does not believe the county should have to pay for the eradication. Instead, he said he and state Sen. Dick Ackerman (R-Irvine) will ask lawmakers to urge state finance officials to reconsider.

"We're going to try to reverse this," Spitzer said. "It is a state responsibility. The state is responsible for protecting our borders from agricultural pests. It didn't. That's why we got the darn things in the first place."

Another financing option, asking more than 700,000 Orange County property owners to agree to a small fee increase, appeared to be doomed Monday.

Michael Hearst, a vector district spokesman, said it's unlikely the agency would try to pursue the fee increase, which would require approval from the district's board and from property owners in a special election.

One drawback is the $1 million it would cost to hold a special, mail-in election, he said.

Even if the board and the voters agreed to an increase, Hearst said, it's too late to have the increase on this year's property tax bills.

"All I can say is this is not on the table right now," Hearst said. "It's horrendously expensive to do this. It's not something you do foolishly. You have to take tax increases seriously. You have to make every cut you can make" before pursuing a fee increase.

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 are a threat to wildlife and agriculture.

The first reports of fire ant attacks on humans in Orange County surfaced in the late 1990s. Vector officials say they have identified 25,000 active fire ant sites in the county. They say they've made significant progress in efforts to eradicate fire ants, but the insects could become a significant problem if the program is halted.

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