Legis. Jay Schneiderman has introduced legislation to jump-start a wide-ranging program to control the ticks that transmit Lyme disease, saying the ailment has reached epidemic levels in Suffolk County.
His legislation goes to the Public Works Committee Tuesday in Riverhead and could be voted on as soon as next week. It would mandate that the division of Vector Control, the county agency responsible for controlling mosquitoes, develop an action plan to deal with ticks as well, and give annual reports on its progress.
Vector Control is part of the public works department and spends most of its $2.3 million annual budget spraying mosquitoes and clearing stagnant waters where those bugs breed.
Schneiderman said his concern over the "alarming" increase in Lyme disease led him to look at the county charter to see if Vector Control could also handle ticks, and discovered that when the county charter was created in 1958 controlling ticks was part of its mandate.
"I never knew it," he said.
Dr. James Tomarken, commissioner of the Suffolk Health Department, stopped short of declaring Lyme disease an epidemic, but agrees it is a serious issue that needs evaluation and assessment. He noted that Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has been pushing for the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study tick-borne diseases, and suggested that Suffolk could serve as a "research/testing site" for such a study.
For years, Lyme disease victims have asked county officials to be more active in dealing with the tick problem. And, Schneiderman said, while mosquito control is important to keep down backyard nuisances in summer, there were only seven cases of mosquito-borne West Nile virus reported in Suffolk in 2012, compared with 689 cases of Lyme disease. Suffolk had more cases of Lyme than any other county in the state, while Nassau had 56.
Schneiderman says ticks can be found on lawns and golf courses as well as woodlands, and it will take a wide-ranging approach to control them, from widening paths in public parks to setting out rodent control tubes, mowing road edges and resuming controlled burns in woodlands.
One element that could be looked at calls for thinning deer herds through increased hunting, and making it easier for property owners to secure deer nuisance hunting permits. Adult deer ticks can carry the disease.
Joe Gergela, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, said deer are an expensive problem for farmers. "They do $2 [million] to $3 million a year of damage to crops," he said.
Schneiderman said preliminary experiments on Shelter Island with Four Posters -- machines that supply cracked corn to deer while applying pesticides to their skin -- have shown a remarkable ability to reduce the tick population.
But each machine costs between $4,000 and $5,000 a year to stock and maintain. Work on Shelter Island has shown that it would take about 60 Four Posters to cover the 12-square-mile island.
Schneiderman said that in areas of heavy tick infestation, the county could help create voluntary taxing districts, where property owners would pay between $50 and $100 a year to cover the cost of Four Posters, roadside maintenance and other tick control measures.
TICK CONTROL PLAN
Major elements of County Legis. Jay Schneiderman's tick control plan, some of which would be under the jurisdiction of town highway departments, the county health department and the state Department of Environmental Conservation.
Controlled burning of selected woodlands.
A public education program.
Immunizations and better medical assessment of tick-borne diseases.
Culling deer herds and sterilization of deer to reduce the deer population.
Roadside mowing and trail clearing.
Assessment of areas where significant health risks exist.
Four-poster placement in appropriate areas.
Creation of tick-control zones.