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Bug board still struggling over proposed Lower Keys building

Some residents protest against the release of genetically modified mosquitoes in a Keys test program designed to reduce the risk of Zika, which is carried by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. This was at the Mosquito Control Board’s meeting Tuesday in Marathon.
Some residents protest against the release of genetically modified mosquitoes in a Keys test program designed to reduce the risk of Zika, which is carried by Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. This was at the Mosquito Control Board’s meeting Tuesday in Marathon. Keynoter

Finding alternatives for a Florida Keys Mosquito Control District construction project could help prevent a 45 percent tax increase for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, but time is limited, district officials say.

Discussion of two new adjacent buildings on Big Coppitt Key continued at a budget workshop prior to the Mosquito Control District Board’s regular meeting Tuesday in Marathon. The two buildings would cost a total of $4.57 million plus other fees, bringing the total to about $6.3 million.

Alternatives were presented by Commissioner Jill Cranney-Gage, who suggested possibly renting the private visitors center that’s for sale on Big Coppitt Key a few blocks away instead of building the administration facility. Other alternatives include delaying construction of the administration building for three years or renting a trailer for the employees. Commissioners did not vote Tuesday, citing the need for more clarification on actual cost savings, which will be discussed at a Sept. 7 budget hearing.

The garage and chemical room will cost $2.84 million, while the operations building would cost $1.73 million. Construction was slated to begin in September, but will be delayed until a final construction decision is made and the budget is finalized.

The need for a new buildings arose following the city of Key West’s decision not to renew the district’s lease of a city-owned building on Stock Island. Currently, 36 employees work in the Key West offices. Most are field inspectors and four are accounting employees.

Mosquito Control Board Commissioner William Shaw stressed the need for the board to make a decision on the buildings soon, as the costs accrued due to delays add up quick.

“We’ve been through this whole process for years. Nobody wants to pay more taxes, but we need a place in Key West we can operate out of,” he said. “The problem is that the board didn’t put the money away, so now we have to bite the bullet and raise the taxes or forget about the future.”

Board Chairman Phil Goodman was more focused on maximizing use of the district’s building in Marathon and moving the four Lower Keys accounting employees there.

“Those four people, in my opinion, should be here” in Marathon, Goodman said. “To have the accounting people here with the rest of the administration to me is real efficiency. You can’t run a business with the chief executive officer and the chief financial officer so far apart. It’s not as efficient.”

Cranney-Gage said she had been searching for cost savings since the board’s last meeting after hearing from constituents about a 45 percent tax increase for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.

“I think we all almost fell out of our chair the same way we did when we anticipated $2.5 million to build the building and it came in at $5 million. The 45 percent tax increase is not sitting well with the community. I’m not saying we strip operations in Key West. I’m saying we’re out of time now, where we have to look at things before we start putting up $6 million worth of stuff.”

The board did not adopt or change the initial tax rate of $68.31 per $100,000 of assessed property value set at the July meeting. The current rate is $50.19 per $100,000.

The board will hold two public hearings next month at Mosquito Control, 503 107th Street bayside, Marathon, at 5 p.m., one on Sept. 7 and the other Sept. 14. The proposed 2016-17 budget is $15.4 million. The board must adopt a budget by Oct. 1.

Director

Also Tuesday, the board appointed Andrea Leal interim director, taking over for Michael Doyle, who has led the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District since 2011 and is moving on to a job in North Carolina.

Leal could possibly take over full-time following Doyle's resignation, effective Sept. 1. Board members voted unanimously to approve Leal, who has been operations director and entomologist. The board agreed she is qualified for the top job but will vote on the full-time position at a later date.

Board members also approved leasing a portion of a lab at the Marathon building to biotechnology company Oxitec to use for projects outside the Keys. For the Keys, the lab is to raise genetically modified mosquitoes for release in the fight against the Zika virus. Should Oxitec choose to use the space for outside the Keys, the market rate would be $25 per square foot per month. District officials didn’t immediately have the square footage of Oxitec’s Marathon lab.

“It’s a small lab they’d be leasing and it’s not clear that they will need it or use it,” Goodman said, but the facility is available.

Protest

A peaceful protest took place prior to the board meeting in opposition to the possible release of GM female mosquitoes in a test program in the Lower Keys. Oxitec says the offspring of its GM mosquitoes die almost immediately, resulting in a smaller population of Aedes aegypti, the mosquito species that spreads Zika.

Protesters said a lack of research is breeding “fear of the unknown.” “It’s really scary for residents and people like us. You don’t know what’s going to happen,” said protester Marissa Sardar.

Protesters also spoke during the public input portion of Tuesday’s meeting, during which Key West homeowner David Bethune voiced his concern over the 3 to 5 percent of mosquito offspring that could potentially survive.

District Director Michael Doyle responded.

“There is a lot of misunderstanding of the data out there,” he said. “I agree that sterility is not a good word, but there is no word in scientific wording or even in public that means an animal that can have offspring that die eventually. So sterile is the closest ethical term that there is. In the lab, when the offspring are produced under perfect conditions, no bad weather, no predators, little competition, 3 to 5 percent of those larvae will survive to adulthood. However, the gene is still functioning and they are still being affected by the protein that is being overproduced. Those 3, 5 percent, in the lab under ideal conditions, are not normal mosquitoes. They are sick mosquitoes because they’ve had protein overproduction for their whole life.”

Katie Atkins: 305-440-3219

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