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O.C. Tax to Aid Fire Ant Fight

Property owners agree to pay $5 a year to revive the pest program and to battle West Nile virus.

August 06, 2004|Dave McKibben | Times Staff Writer

Orange County property owners have agreed to tax themselves $5 a year to resurrect a campaign to eradicate red imported fire ants and support continuing efforts to stem the spread of the West Nile virus.

The fire ant eradication effort was halted in February after the state stopped contributing funds and Orange County Vector Control District officials said they could not support the program alone.

But district officials announced Thursday that of the 600,000 ballots mailed to property owners, 66% of the 200,000 that were returned supported the annual tax to maintain existing vector control services and reestablish the fire ant program.

The district's board on Thursday unanimously approved a resolution to formally levy the assessment, which will generate $2.5 million annually. Of that, 55% will be earmarked for the fire ant program and 45% will go toward fighting West Nile virus.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday August 07, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 79 words Type of Material: Correction
Parcel assessment -- An article in Friday's California section about Orange County property owners agreeing to tax themselves to eradicate fire ants and stem the spread of the West Nile virus said that 600,000 ballots were mailed and 200,000 were returned. There were 655,849 ballots issued and 186,783 of them were returned. The article also said the tax was $5 per year. The tax is an annual assessment ranging from $2.71 on vacant parcels to $5.42 on single-family homes.

The state had given Orange County about $2 million a year to battle the fire ants, and county officials say the amount generated by the property tax should be enough to effectively continue the program.

Fire ants bite their victims, causing a pinching sensation, followed by a stinging, burning feeling that leads to itchiness and blisters. Unchecked, the pests will proliferate because they have no known natural enemy, experts say.

Scientists say that if the ants become established in California, it could cost as much as $989 million a year to control them.

The swarming insects can destroy tree fruit, nuts and grapes, harm ground-nesting animals and several bird species, and damage wiring; over the years a handful of people in the Southwest have died from bites because of allergic reactions to the ant's venom.

In Orange County, where fire ants were first discovered in 1998, vector control officials attacked the insects with a chemical that stops the insects from metabolizing food, causing them to starve. They knocked out more than 95% of the colonies they treated and began predicting that eradication was possible by 2005.

At one point, more than 200,000 ant colonies, distinguished by their volcano-shaped mounds, were estimated thriving in Orange County.

Orange County's tax assessment will be added to property tax bills mailed this month.

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