The county's unheralded mosquito abatement districts have inspired quips about "SWAT" teams and bug wars. They rely on something called "sentinel chicken flocks" to detect disease-carrying mosquitoes, and they employ gluttonous 2 1/2-inch-long minnows to gobble up mosquito larvae in people's fish ponds.
But the districts wage a somber and expensive battle against virus-infected mosquitoes that can actually kill humans, and county officials made it clear last week that cities that have never joined a mosquito abatement district or have created their own mosquito control programs must soon begin paying for their share of the perennial insect war.
Of the more than 40 cities in Los Angeles County that do not belong to the districts, about 25 are in the San Gabriel Valley. There, only San Marino has joined a district, and Pasadena has created its own mosquito control program, county officials said.
The county Department of Health Services has been paying the bill for controlling mosquitoes in non-member cities since 1984, when a surprise outbreak of the mosquito-borne St. Louis encephalitis virus infected 16 people countywide, killing one and contributing to the deaths of two others.
The virus, which attacks the brain and nervous system, causes symptoms ranging from a mild fever to delirium and severe seizures.
County officials said cities have been reluctant to join the districts because, until the 1984 outbreak, only a handful of cases of mosquito-borne encephalitis had ever been reported in the county.
Since that outbreak, at least four more cases have occurred. Last July, a resident of Norwalk and a resident of Covina were hospitalized for several weeks, and finally recovered, after contracting St. Louis encephalitis from mosquitoes, according to county health officials.
Bob Gates, director of the Department of Health Services, told the Board of Supervisors Tuesday that because of budget pressures, his department does not want to provide $296,000 in funds that had been earmarked for controlling mosquitoes in non-member cities from July 1 through December.
The board stopped short of acting on Gates' request, but Supervisor Pete Schabarum asked county staff members to devise a plan to pressure the cities to begin paying for mosquito control by late this year or early next year.
Supervisor Deane Dana complained that despite two years of effort by the county's Local Agency Formation Commission, the cities have dragged their feet in applying for membership in a district.
"It's been two years and many cities still aren't paying. . . . My opinion is that something slipped through the cracks," Dana said.
Nevertheless, he opposed Gates' proposal to cut off funds July 1, arguing that some cities "are very small, and where are they going to get the money, all of a sudden on the first of July, when we tell them there's no more money?"
Gates said the county has offered to pay for half the cost borne by every city that joins a district. However, Gates said, it has taken some time "to persuade all these cities to give up some of their tax base."
Bob Norquist, acting city administrator in Pomona, said city officials support a plan to form a San Gabriel Valley Abatement District, into which Pomona would pay about $15,000 a year, with the county matching that amount.
"We have been aware of the county's budget crunch for some time," Norquist said. "It would not be very costly to Pomona property owners--less than a dollar a year per parcel, and that's not too shabby."
Norquist said city officials are awaiting word from the Local Agency Formation Commission, the agency handling the negotiations, on what steps they should take next.
In Temple City, officials said they are willing to join an abatement district but want the county to pay the full cost.
William Hart, the city's field services coordinator, said that because Temple City is one of only a few California cities that collects no city property tax, "we'll have to go into our reserves" if the city is told to come up with an anticipated $1,600 for mosquito control each year.
"$1,600 is a small amount if you have a $150-million budget, but when you have a $4-million budget that's broken down into all the different departments, $1,600 becomes a significant cost to our health program," Hart said. "We are sort of over a barrel."
The county currently pays for the testing of birds, which bring encephalitis into the region, and mosquitoes, which sting birds and then transfer the virus to humans.
Abatement districts also maintain "sentinel chicken flocks"--groups of chickens kept in open-air cages in six locations around the county, whose sole duty is to attract passing mosquitoes. The chickens are then regularly tested for the disease.
In addition, teams of mosquito control experts roam the county seeking out pools of stagnant water, non-chlorinated swimming pools and slow-moving river areas where newborn mosquito "wrigglers" thrive and grow to maturity.
The teams use pesticides, mosquito-smothering oils and hungry minnows to kill the wrigglers.
The districts will even supply concerned residents with minnows for use in their pools and ponds.
Frank Pelsue Jr., general manager of the Southeast Mosquito Abatement District, told the board that already this year, encephalitis has been detected in mosquitoes or birds in El Monte and Covina, where his district has been hired by the county to fight mosquitoes.
He said such discoveries are made nearly every year and are not cause for alarm.
However, he said, the Imperial Valley has had "an unusually early year" of mosquito breeding, and the San Gabriel Valley is acting as a conduit for potentially disease-laden mosquitoes that spread from the Imperial Valley region to Los Angeles.
Norman Hauret, manager of the Los Angeles County West Mosquito Abatement District, told the board that the disease has also been detected in birds or mosquitoes in the South Bay, where his district is being paid by the county to fight the pests.