Gov. Rick Scott's probe into expenditures at the state's special taxing districts might want to start at Lee County Mosquito Control.
With an annual budget of $22 million, Lee's mosquito district spends more than 46 other mosquito districts -- combined.
"There's no excuse for it," says state Rep. Paige Kreegel, who has introduced legislation that could abolish the district.
Scott last week directed his Office of Policy and Budget to review and make recommendations for cutting costs at some 1,600 special districts levying more than $15 billion in taxes each year.
The governor previously ordered investigations of hospital and water management districts, and has now expanded the scope to all special districts.
Mosquito districts have flown below the political radar because most operate on budgets under $2 million. Even populous counties such as Miami-Dade run their mosquito eradication programs on less than $3 million.
But Lee County, in Southwest Florida, is a glaring exception. With a seven-member elected board and 68 employees, the independent mosquito district's payroll works out to an average of $118,000 per worker.
The district also holds the distinction of having the 11th-highest compensated retiree in the state's pension system. Former executive director T. Wayne Miller, who retired in 1994, currently receives $172,027 a year.
Most counties place mosquito-eradication duties under public works or other departments. Kreegel has found that counties that operate independent districts, such as Lee's, "step up in price to do it."
"The personnel costs are $8 million, and that's a problem" said the Punta Gorda Republican, pointing to Lee's top-heavy staffing. The local mosquito board has two more members than the entire County Commission.
Operationally, Lee's district spends more just on spray, fuel and helicopter maintenance than the total mosquito budgets in neighboring Charlotte or Hendry counties.
Kreegel has introduced House Bill 1395 to require a referendum on the big-spending district. Lee County residents could vote to abolish the district and transfer all assets and liabilities to the Lee County Commission.
Wayne Gale, executive director of the Lee mosquito district, calls HB 1395 "a drastic measure to abolish a district that no local people seem to have a problem with.
"This was pretty much a surprise to us and the county as well.
"We are large because we have the largest mosquito problem in the state," said Gale, who explained that thousands of acres of state-managed salt marshes and islands within the district require aerial treatment.
"No other county has this type of topograghy. We do one-third of all the aerial larvae sightings in the state. Many areas are not accessible by vehicles," Gale said.
Gale reported the district maintains $5 million in reserves for self-insurance and has set aside $1 million for a future hangar.
"We have a lot of expensive aircraft," he noted.
Regarding the pending legislation, Gale said, "We've sent information to the local delegation to answer questions they've had."
Kreegel says "the [district's] defensiveness alone sets off alarms."
Kreegel, a physician, acknowledges it was the Legislature that authorized the creation of mosquito control boards, but says that times have changed.
"Back in the day, the work involved spraying diesel fuel and draining swamps. Now we have a mature industry. The chemicals that are used are generic and relatively inexpensive," he said.
"The governor has shined a light on the situation. It's time the taxpayers got some equity. Let the people vote whether they want this," Kreegel concluded.
Without specifically referencing mosquito boards, Clete Saunier, president of the Florida Association of Special Districts, predicted that the governor's investigation "will affirm that special districts are fiscally responsible, community-focused local government entities.
Central to the discussions should be that special districts are created upon public demand, and help Floridians when local or state governments were either unable or unwilling to provide crucial services or infrastructure to a community," Saunier said in a statement.
Contact Kenric Ward at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (772) 801-5341.