Tiny mosquitoes take big tax bite
BY ANDY SHAW Better Government Association September 21, 2012 8:04PM
Christopher Xamples, a mosquito ecologist for the North Shore Mosquito District, checks a mosquito trap in June. | Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 24, 2012 6:28AM
Here’s the buzz: Cook County’s mosquitoes should be flattered by all the government attention they’re getting. But taxpayers should be flustered.
Because the county has four separate mosquito abatement districts that spend $11.5 million a year in property taxes.
Public officials keep talking about consolidating them into one agency but, like most reform proposals around here, it’s all talk and no action.
This is a perfect example of the government excess that plagues Illinois — which has 7,000 units of government, the most in the country — and Cook County, which also is No. 1 with 2,000-plus taxing bodies.
Yes, the threat of West Nile virus makes mosquito abatement an important fight. But that doesn’t obviate the need to consider how it can be provided more efficiently and effectively in Cook County, where every dollar counts for cash-strapped taxpayers struggling with unemployment and declining home values.
Other counties are consolidating, including DuPage, which hired a consultant to review all of its taxing bodies, including two mosquito abatement districts. The review urged officials to consider folding both mosquito districts into the county’s health department and sharing the cost of pesticide with other governments.
“I’m hopeful and confident that we can be a model for how to abate mosquitoes . . . and do it in a way that’s cost efficient,” said Dan Cronin, DuPage’s board chairman.
Cook County should consider those measures and several other potential economies that follow a recent BGA investigation:
† Instead of four mosquito districts buying pesticides at a total cost of nearly $2 million a year, pool the buying power and negotiate a lower price.
† Consider sharing legal, insurance and other purchasing services, which account for more than 40 percent of each district’s spending.
† Look at the money that goes into salaries and benefits. A comparison of Cook County’s mosquito districts finds that one employs 25 full-time workers while another of nearly equal size gets by with only five.
Also, the average salary of the district superintendents exceeds $100,000, so consolidation into one district with one boss could save up to $300,000.
Before the West Nile outbreak of 2002, media stories raised questions about nepotism, no-bid contracts, patronage hiring and excessive conference expenses.
Those problems haven’t magically disappeared, so personnel rolls still include the family, friends and campaign donors of influential politicians. That kind of business as usual is unaffordable in today’s economy.
Some might argue it’s not worth scrutinizing mosquito districts because their staffs and budgets pale in comparison to the big units of government.
But downsizing has to start somewhere, and if government leaders can’t reform these tiny districts, while preserving the services they provide, how can we expect them to tackle much more daunting problems?
So we’ll keep buzzing about this until officials start attacking these pesky problems.
Andy Shaw is president and CEO of the Better Government Association. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (312) 386-9097.