By KEVIN CHIRI
Slidell news bureau
SLIDELL – An unusually high fund balance held by the St. Tammany Mosquito Abatement District may continue to bring scrutiny and some criticism, but it certainly hasn’t made voters change their minds about supporting the work that keeps the mosquito population to a manageable level.
An annual review of government entities provided by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor’s Office recently pointed out concerns, for the second year in a row, over the fund balance the Mosquito District holds.
While there is over $23 million in the fund, Director Viki Taylor noted that nearly $9 million is there for its 2017 operation. That still leaves approximately $16 million in the hefty savings account.
Additionally, the fund grew in an unexpected way the past two years from BP Oil money and reimbursement from FEMA for damages in the past, giving them approximately $1.7 million in one-time money.
It was December of 2016 when the Mosquito District asked voters to renew its 10-year millage that provides almost all of its annual funding. One local watchdog group reviewed several ballot items and recommended against supporting the Mosquito District renewal because of its big fund balance.
Then the legislative auditor recently raised questions about the fund, prompting Taylor to explain to the public why they do have so much money in the bank.
The director said the district has a 10-year projection for expenses and revenue and sees what they expect to be a problem at the end of that period since the current property tax is growing at an annual rate of 2.8 percent a year, while their expenses continue to grow at an average of 6 percent a year.
“Simply put, at the current rate for property tax growth and expense increases, we will run through all that money in 10 years,” she noted. “We are fortunate the former director was so efficient running our operation and enabling us to build up an emergency fund.”
Regardless of the critics, the public strongly supported the renewal of the Mosquito District millage last December with 64 percent voting in favor, doing so at a time they were voting down two other important parish sales taxes for the parish jail and Parish Courthouse operations.
Taylor also noted the district has to keep extra money in the savings account in the event of emergencies such as the West Nile outbreak in 2002.
“When that outbreak occurred we had to increase our spraying and expenses in that year by 140 percent,” she said. “We had 42 people infected with West Nile that year, but now that is under control for the most part. We have to keep extra money for those kinds of emergencies since we have no other means of funding.”
The Mosquito District was headed for many years by Director Chuck Palmisano, who retired a year ago after 39 years with the department. Taylor, now with 38 years of service, said she will be retiring next year.
But she said the fund balance grew annually thanks to the work of Palmisano running an efficient operation.
“Chuck Palmisano is one of the most frugal and honest people on Earth,” she said. “That’s how the money grew, but it was important to do that so we could be prepared for emergencies.”
The Louisiana Legislative Auditor, after meeting with Taylor and the Board of Directors, agreed to accept the fund balance as is after viewing the 10-year plan, the director said.
The district will have a very large additional expense in the 2017 year after an airplane accident with one of their sprayers last April, 2016. Two pilots were killed when their plane got tangled up in power lines at the end of the Slidell runway at night. The district is going to purchase a $3.5 million plane, and after getting only $647,000 in insurance money on the old plane, will have to fund nearly $3 million of it on their own.
However, Taylor said the new plane will help them cut costs in the future since it can carry four times as much chemicals on one flight.
“That keeps us from having to come back to refuel and fill up with chemicals so much,” she added.
Additionally, Taylor said they have found a new supplier to purchase chemical in bulk that will “save about $2 million over four years.”
“We have done everything asked by the state auditor and have had almost nothing in our audits that shows any problems with our operation,” she said. “What minor things that were found had to do with paperwork or record keeping and we have implemented those recommendations.”
As for what adjustments the district will make in the next 10 years to keep from using up all their money, Taylor said they continue to seek cost cutting measures of any kind they can find since there is not an option to bring in more money. The property tax provides almost every penny of their operating budget.
“We can hope that property values go up and we get a little more money on the millage,” she said. “But as of now, we look at the 10 year projection and know we have a problem that will eventually have to be solved.”