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Orient Mosquito District still battling pests a century later

09/19/2016 6:00 AM |

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In April 1916, New York State approved a law allowing each town in Suffolk County to create a special district for the purpose of exterminating mosquitoes.

Five months later, Southold Town adopted legislation forming the Orient Mosquito District. Exactly one century later, the special district — which met for the first time Sept. 30, 1916, and set a $220 budget for the following year — remains the only one of its kind in the entire state.

Last Saturday at Poquatuck Hall on Skipper’s Lane, four of the district’s five commissioners gathered to approve the annual budget. Shortly after the vote, longtime commissioner Ed King — a plumber who, like each of the district’s other board members, owns a local business — thanked the four community members in attendance for taking time from their busy schedules to attend the meeting.

“Never since I’ve been on the board have I seen four people in the audience,” he said. “It’s usually three or four of us conducting business without an audience.”

The possible record crowd — which briefly included a fifth individual who left the 55-minute meeting early — participated in a discussion with the commissioners about the wide-ranging challenges the district faces. These included the need to pierce the 2 percent state property tax levy cap for 2017, a budget increase to cover expanded spraying in saltwater marsh areas, the possible threat of and the future of the district in an aging and changing community.

“We need some new blood for the mosquitoes to …,” district chairman Bob Hughes said before his joke was cut short by laughter from the seven other people in the room.

The $93,000 budget the district adopted Saturday falls short of the $125,000 maximum appropriation the state allows, but is about $5,000 higher than the 2016 spending plan. With about $20,000 in anticipated reserves and the looming possibility of having to dip into the fund balance for reasons ranging from the extreme — potential Zika mandates — to the mundane — if the district has to replace its 10-year-old truck — the commissioners voted unanimously to pierce the tax levy cap with an increase of more than 5 percent.

Much of the tax levy hike relates to aerial insecticide applications by the county at saltwater marshes in Orient, using chemicals purchased by the mosquito district, Mr. Hughes said.

While that type of spraying would not necessarily help combat the potential threat of the West Nile or Zika, viruses spread by freshwater mosquito breeding, it’s necessary in a hamlet with vast wetlands, Mr. Hughes said.

“It’s more for [residents’] personal comfort,” he said after the meeting.

Mr. Hughes said the presence of Zika in the U.S. could create a concern for the district if the state or federal government were to mandate spraying or other precautions too costly for the tiny district to absorb — particularly if those mandates were unfunded, as he expects they would be.

“The likelihood of funds being available to us are slim,” he said. “Maybe through grant applications, but you just saw the four wise men up here.”

Mr. Hughes was referring to the four board members gathered Saturday, including himself, Mr. King, local farmer Fred Terry and Ed Wysocki, a mechanic whose Platt Road garage doubles as a home base for the district. The fifth commissioner, farmer Steven Mezynieski, was not in attendance.

Traditionally served by seven commissioners, the board has been cut to five over the years, as participation and interest in the district has waned. Mr. Terry, the oldest member at 75, said he’s even considered stepping down, but there’s been nobody to fill his shoes. “We’re tired,” he said.

Mr. Hughes said the district will look to spread the word to attract younger residents to join the volunteer board before its next meeting in April 2017.

Orient resident Debra O’Kane was on hand at the meeting and expressed an interest in becoming a commissioner. Ms. O’Kane, former executive director of the North Fork Environmental Council, and Orient Association president Bob Hanlon peppered the board with questions about the district budget and public information efforts before the vote, with board members appearing defensive at times in their responses.

“I’m not suggesting you spend too much,” Mr. Hanlon said, assuring the board he merely sought information about its processes.

During the meeting, Mr. Wysocki, a lifelong Orient resident who has served the mosquito district for over 30 years, was praised for storing district equipment and chemicals at his shop and providing equipment repairs at little cost. After the meeting, Mr. Wysocki said that if the district ceased to exist, he believes it would cost far more for the county to handle mosquito control in Orient.

A 1960 New York Times article on New York State’s smallest special districts said Orient residents at the time paid $1.24 per year to fund the district, but were therefore exempt from paying a tax to fund the Suffolk County Mosquito Control Commission.

“Officials of the special district contend that the area is more successful than the county in battling the pestiferous insects, and at a lower tax rate,” the Times reported on page 39 of the April 25, 1960, edition.

Mr. Hughes brought a book containing 1916 news stories about the district's creation to Saturday's meeting. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

Mr. Hughes brought a book containing 1916 news stories about the district’s creation to Saturday’s meeting. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

Mr. Hughes, who estimated the average Orient household currently pays about $88 per year in taxes to the district, joked that the board must have “had a better PR guy back then.”

For one, he said, it’s very difficult to compare Orient to other areas in terms of its effectiveness in combating mosquitoes, particularly because so much of the community is surrounded by wetlands and thus has more mosquito breeding grounds than surrounding hamlets. And since the county mosquito commission no longer exists and vector control is now under the auspices of the Department of Public Works, Orient residents no longer receive any exemptions for having their own mosquito district.

“We’ve been fighting that and trying to get our county tax rate lower because of that,” Mr. Hughes said. “I guess in a way, and people will love this, we’re being double-taxed.”

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Top photo: Orient Mosquito District chairman Bob Hughes presents the district budget to community residents at last Saturday’s board meeting. (Credit: Grant Parpan)

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