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Big government for a little nuisance
Salary and pension costs sting taxpayers

Sunday, June 24, 2012
Chicago Tribune

Experts agree: The best way to avoid mosquitoes is to wear insect repellent and dump the containers of standing water where they breed.

So please enlighten: Why, again, do we need four separate taxing bodies in Cook County alone to control the mosquito population?

Here are a few guesses. One is accurate:

• Mosquitoes are ruthless and formidable, requiring aPentagon equivalent to combat them.

• The other taxpayer-funded entities that also fight skeeters — city, county and state health departments — can't do the seasonal job by themselves. Be reasonable.

• Any opportunity to preserve government largesse, taxpayer-funded payrolls and unaffordable pension benefits is what we in Illinois call "bleeping golden."

You guessed right! Door No. 3!

Which essentially explains why Cook County taxpayers fund four mosquito abatement districts: North Shore, Northwest, Desplaines Valley and South Cook. Together, they collect about $10 million in property tax revenue annually, most of which is spent on salaries and benefits. (For the employees, not the mosquitoes.)

Take the North Shore Mosquito Abatement District. Last year it appropriated $355,700 for mosquito-fighting supplies and equipment. But the district set aside $659,341 for salaries, $89,500 for pension contributions and Social Security, and $227,500 for insurance and bonds, according to the district's annual report.

The South Cook district made $205,872 in pension contributions on behalf of its nearly two dozen employees last year.

Who knew mosquitoes could be stewards of job retention and hearty pensions?

But why stop there? The potential for ticks and wasps to spur government intervention, more spending and job growth is limitless. In fact, the number of people in the United States who die each year from bee stings is nearly double the number of deaths from West Nile virus. Somebody, quick! We need a dozen Chicago-area bee extermination districts with boards, staff and — of course — pension plans.

You grin? That's how we got where we are. Public referendums created mosquito abatement districts in the 1920s after several outbreaks of malaria. The taxpayer-funded brigades managed to stay in business ever since. In DuPage County, 45 separate government bodies provide mosquito abatement services such as spraying and larvae control. DuPage County Board Chairman Dan Cronin is working to mitigate that tax-sucking overlap. We'd like some leadership in Cook County too.

Fear of West Nile tends to prop up this continued existence of abatement districts, although there's little proof their techniques actually reduce West Nile deaths. Most people who die of the virus have compromised immune systems. Experts blamed a 2002 West Nile spike on travel patterns of infected mosquitoes that moved through the Midwest that summer. Despite layers of mosquito control, 67 people in Illinois died. But deaths attributed to West Nile returned to the single digits for most of the last 10 years.

While tests this month established that a crow in Champaign County died of West Nile, and mosquitoes in several Chicago suburbs tested positive for the virus, the data hardly justify the superfluous government oversight and expense. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports only one human case nationwide so far this year.

So as they hunt for ways to shrink government and economize — They're doing that, right? — Illinois lawmakers have one easy knockout punch. Get rid of these districts and leave mosquito control to the other government entities we're already being taxed to support — and to all of us. The best prevention, after all, comes in an over-the-counter spray can.

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