Being elected to the Florida Keys Mosquito Control Commission might not be the sexiest elected office in Monroe County, but the agency plays a critical role in maintaining public health and is responsible for $9 million a year in taxpayers' money.
While the two candidates running for the Upper Keys Mosquito Control Commission seat seemed content with the level of service, they are concerned when it comes to the spending of public dollars.
Republican Tom McDonald, a Tavernier-based accountant, faces opponent Democrat Geoff Bailey, a Key Largo-based veterinarian, for the District 5 seat held by outgoing Commissioner Jack Bridges. The two will square off in the Nov. 4 General Election.
Two of the biggest financial issues concerning the mosquito control service that have been publicly debated come from the amount that actual board members make, and the health benefits they are entitled to.
McDonald supports reducing or at least limiting the salaries of board members. Currently, board members make about $19,800 a year plus benefits. The Florida Keys Mosquito Control board is the highest paid board in the state. Members on the second highest paid board, in Lee County, receive about $8,000 a year.
McDonald argued that the benefits package and the salaries are leading board members to turn their public service into careers.
"Some people are only doing it for the pay," McDonald said.
Neither of the candidates supported reducing staff salaries or benefits.
"No employees are going to be laid off," McDonald said. "There is about 8 percent attrition a year. Cutting could occur just through attrition and crosstraining. Their jobs are safe. I want them to help us move forward with making the innovations."
Bailey did not seem to have a problem with the commissioners' salaries, as long they are actually earning them. In exchange for earning their salary, they should be attending community events, educating the public and doing outreach, and enrolling in mosquito control continuing education courses, Bailey said.
"I can see it both ways," Bailey said. "If it came down to it, I could support reducing it (the board's salaries)."
McDonald supports setting term limits in which board members could only be on the board for two consecutive four-year terms. Current commissioners Bill Shaw and Steve Smith have been on the board for nearly 20 years each. Currently, there are no term limits.
"People are turning this into a career," McDonald said.
Bailey called elections a form of term limits.
"It is up to the public to decide whether they want a commissioner on the board for two or three terms," Bailey said.
Genetically modified mosquitoes
Both candidates support further research of using genetically engineered mosquitoes as another tool to battle Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which are known to carry the dengue fever virus.
The district has partnered with the England-based company Oxitec to use genetically engineered mosquitoes. Oxitec proposes to alter male mosquitoes to make them "sterile," so when they are released and mate with a female mosquito in the wild, her offspring would die in the larval stage.
Oxitec is looking at possibly doing a test release of the mosquitoes on Key Haven as early as the first half of next year.
Both candidates want to make sure that an outside government agency would oversee testing of the genetically modified mosquitoes.
"I absolutely support this," Bailey said. "The science is there. I am not concerned about killing too many mosquitoes. If this can be more cost effective and environmentally friendly, then we should move forward with this."
The test release has been met with some resistance.
A 2013 study by North Carolina State University professor Michael Cobb shows support for the test release. It found that 60 percent of Key West residents surveyed "supports the (Florida Keys Mosquito Control District) to use (genetically engineered) technologies for mosquito control."
Twenty-three percent of those surveyed did not support the method, and 17 percent were neutral on the issue, the study found.
When asked how safe genetically engineered technology is, 13 percent of Key Westers thought it was "very safe" and 53 percent thought it was "safe," the survey stated. However, 11 percent thought it was "very unsafe," while 23 percent thought it was "unsafe."
Keyswide, 61 percent supported using genetically engineered technology in Key West to control Aedes aegypti mosquitoes. Eighteen percent said they were opposed to the technology, and 21 percent remained neutral.
The study was done in two parts. In the first segment, 614 people Keyswide returned surveys that were mailed to them in January. In the final phase, 205 Key West residents were interviewed at their homes between Jan. 1 and 5.