Official: Cost too high compared to benefit

Last updated: April 07. 2013 11:22PM - 5596 Views
By Jon O'Connell

Duane 'Shorty' Smith of Sweet Valley casts his line into the lake at Frances Slocum State Park in Kingston Township on Saturday afternoon.  BILL TARUTIS/FOR THE TIMES LEADER
Duane 'Shorty' Smith of Sweet Valley casts his line into the lake at Frances Slocum State Park in Kingston Township on Saturday afternoon. BILL TARUTIS/FOR THE TIMES LEADER
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Because Luzerne County’s home rule charter calls for performance-based expenditures, no funds have been marked for the state-run Black Fly Suppression Program.

Upon examination, the program was not producing results to justify the nearly $75,000 program cost, Luzerne County Chief Engineer Joe Gibbons said.

“We did a little reconnaissance,” Gibbons said. “We could find no way that we had proper blackfly suppression in those areas (where the program’s insecticides were applied).”

Of the county’s $122 million general fund budget, county manager Robert Lawton said that money for the blackfly program — about 20 percent of the project’s operating costs; the state fronts the other 80 percent — is needed elsewhere. Lawton confirmed this is the first year the county has not participated in the state Department of Environmental Protection program since shortly after its inception in the mid-1980s.

Mark Warfel, the DEP program’s regional coordinator for Luzerne County and 10 other Northeastern Pennsylvania counties, is set to retire in two weeks. Warfel, of Monroe County, chuckled and said he considered staying on with the department for the summer to see just how problematic the flies we will get in this county.

“There will be more bugs because there will be no treatment,” Warfel said.

Blackflies — scientists refer to this particular species as Simulium Jenningsi — are the irritating little gnats that swarm outdoors.

Gibbons said funds, equipment and qualified varmint-control employees are in place if nuisance critters of any kind flare up inside the county.

“We have money budgeted as a contingency for if we run into an invasive species,” he said.

For the suppression program, helicopters take scheduled flights over the state’s rivers, spraying a bacterial insecticide into the water to kill blackfly larvae. Warfel said the worm-like baby flies must ingest the insecticide for the treatment to effectively control populations.

“It’s a biological agent. It’s not a contact agent. They literally have to eat this,” Warfel said.

Warfel said the opt-in program for counties has seen its share of complacent participation, particularly from Luzerne County.

“After a certain number of years, people forget why there was a program to begin with,” Warfel said. “There’s been some reluctance in the past to spend the money for their share, but they’ve always changed their minds and participated,” he said.

The program was paused in 2009 under Gov. Ed Rendell’s administration. Josh Longmore, manager of the Luzerne Conservation District, a para-governmental organization that oversees specific environmental issues, said blackflies hatched in the warmer Susquehanna waters uninhibited and flew well away from the river, plaguing the Back Mountain and other areas.

“Back in 2009, when the governor hadn’t agreed on a budget and the program stopped … that’s when they realized the value of these programs,” Longmore said.

Gibbons said that with the current budget, participating in a program that has no measurable effects by county standards is not feasible.

“Everything nowadays is performance measurement,” Gibbons said. “We need to make sure that investment is effective and is in the best interests of the taxpayers.”

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