BROOKSVILLE — With one of the wettest summers in recent memory and deadly diseases such as Eastern equine encephalitis killing people just a couple of counties away, it might seem like a strange time to talk about cutting the county's mosquito control budget.
But with Hernando County short millions of dollars because of plummeting property values and property tax collections, every service is feeling the sting, and mosquito control is no exception.
With the county planning to pare 25 percent from the department's 2010-11 budget — reducing this year's $679,000 budget to $510,000 — officials predict a 50 percent reduction in services, including the loss of the important sentinel chicken program, an end to many educational programs and fewer chemicals for spraying.
Those possible losses have caught the attention of state agricultural officials, who, in a letter to County Administrator David Hamilton this month, urged a reconsideration of the cuts.
"Mosquito control is foremost about the health, safety and welfare of Hernando County's citizens," wrote Michael J. Page, chief of the pest control bureau of the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Page predicts that cuts in the budget would lead to an increase in the number of mosquito-borne illnesses in Hernando County. He pointed out the deadly nature of Eastern equine encephalitis, which has killed four people in Florida this year, including two in Hillsborough County.
He also predicted an economic impact, as outdoor activities — ranging from landscaping and construction to school sporting events and evening community events — would be curtailed as the mosquito population grows.
"Any reduction in mosquito control efforts will serve to worsen Florida's economic troubles," Page wrote.
He concluded: "I am therefore urging you to reconsider the proposed cuts which will ultimately be detrimental to the citizens of the county, especially at a time when mosquito-borne disease activity in the area of the state is increasing."
Hernando County environmental health manager Al Gray and mosquito control director Guangye Hu issued a mosquito advisory this month, warning of the dangers of mosquito-borne diseases, such as encephalitis and West Nile virus.
At Gray's invitation, county commissioners on Tuesday will hear more about the issue from Department of Health veterinary liaison Jennifer Chatfield.
Gray said the cuts all tie into preventive measures that reduce people's exposure to illnesses that mosquitoes transmit. Since there are no vaccines for the illnesses, "preventing exposure is the key," Gray said.
As Hu describes the cuts, slicing six part-time workers who have done night spraying would mean that the four daytime workers would have to take spraying shifts. The jobs they do during the day would be severely curtailed, such as checking for and killing mosquito larvae, adding biological controls such as mosquito-eating fish where needed, removing items such as discarded tires that collect water and collecting aquatic plants that host mosquitoes.
The loss of the sentinel chicken program would take away another tool in mosquito control's arsenal. The chickens, kept in various places around the county, are tested for disease exposure during the height of mosquito season. Just last year, a chicken in the northwestern portion of the county tested positive for encephalitis.
That gave the county's crews information about where they most needed to spray. With the budget cuts, Hu said, the county would have to do without that information.
The proposed reductions to Hu's department also include cutting three of six trucks and 40 percent of a chemical budget already cut last year.
Barbara Behrendt can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1434.