Miami-Dade County

Miami-Dade’s Zika tab approaching $8 million, and counting

Fran Middlebrooks, a groundskeeper at Pinecrest Gardens, former home of the historic Parrot Jungle, uses a blower to spray pesticide to kill mosquitoes on Aug. 4, 2016. Miami-Dade County has been fighting to control a Zika virus outbreak.
Fran Middlebrooks, a groundskeeper at Pinecrest Gardens, former home of the historic Parrot Jungle, uses a blower to spray pesticide to kill mosquitoes on Aug. 4, 2016. Miami-Dade County has been fighting to control a Zika virus outbreak. MIAMI HERALD

Zika will force Miami-Dade to spend about four times more than it planned to fight mosquitoes into the fall, with $8 million slated for aerial insecticide and dozens of contractors assigned to apply insecticide on the ground, the county’s mayor said Thursday.

The figure, shared during a Twitter session on Mayor Carlos Gimenez’s 2017 budget, revealed just how dramatically Zika has thrust Miami-Dade into a summer mosquito battle at a time when the county was drawing unfavorable comparisons to smaller jurisdictions with much larger budgets for fighting insects.

In April, the New York Times featured Miami-Dade’s 12-person mosquito squad under the headline “In Miami, Facing Risk of Zika with Resolve but Limited Resources.” The story noted Lee County, with a quarter of Miami-Dade’s population. boasted a mosquito-control division of 88 people.

Now, Miami has been branded as ground zero for national Zika fears, with the popular Wynwood gallery district and the Midtown Miami shopping area subject to an unprecedented travel advisory for pregnant women.

Miami-Dade has been pumping a surge of tax dollars into its mosquito efforts, too. Chalmers Vasquez, head of the county’s mosquito division, said his staff surged from a dozen to “at least 90” thanks to private contractors commissioned for the effort.

“It’s the most we’ve ever, ever had,” Vasquez said.

“Not even Lee County,” he said, “has that many people.”

The contractors duplicate county workers’ on-the-ground efforts, which involve responding to resident complaints about heavy concentrations of mosquitoes. The crews apply insecticide directly to the ground and plants, a method considered the most effective against the mosquito that carries Zika.

For the 2016 budget year, which ends Sept. 30, Miami-Dade planned to spend about $1.5 million fighting mosquitoes, according to the budget office. The 2017 budget is $1.7 million.

At a live budget town hall this week, Budget Director Jennifer Moon said should could not provide a more realistic figure on what the 2017 mosquito budget would become, or how Miami-Dade would pay for the mushrooming costs for 2016. Most likely the money would come from unspent dollars accumulating in various departments across the $7 billion budget.

Some of that money was supposed to go to a special affordable-housing fund, but Moon said it’s not clear how much money will be left for that. Miami-Dade commissioners in May voted to pledge up to $100 million in 2016 surplus dollar to the fund.

Miami-Dade also is paying for unprecedented amounts of aerial spraying for mosquitoes in a 10-mile zone around Wynwood. County officials couldn’t provide a breakdown of 2016 funds spent on mosquito-fighting funds, but Gimenez said in his Twitter question-and-answer session that the cost is “projected to be close to $8 million this year. It could go up.”

The Zika outbreak landed about a month before the Aug. 30 primary that could decide the 2016 mayoral race, and Gimenez is under fire from challenger Raquel Regalado over the county’s mosquito efforts. “Everybody knew this was coming,” said the two-term school board member.

When asked why Miami-Dade didn’t ramp up mosquito efforts sooner, Gimenez said the county has always followed state and federal guidelines no matter the cost.

“We acted on our own before this thing actually struck,” Gimenez said. “I don’t care what our budget is. This is like a hurricane. You do what you have to do.”

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