The brand new $ eight million mosquito management constructing in Florida turns into a marketing campaign drawback

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Tom McLaughlin

| Northwest Florida Daily News

SANTA ROSA BEACH – The South Walton Mosquito Control District has never seen as much buzz as this year’s races for two seats on its three-person board of directors.

The mainstays of the Board of Directors, John Magee and Tim Norris, struggle to keep their jobs in the face of the challenges of some determined newcomers. Doug Liles is behind Magees 1st place and Donna Johns is running for Norris’ 2nd place.

More: The South Walton Mosquito Control District is on trial

As contestants hit the track in races decided on November 3rd, the Mosquito Control District spending has become a key element of the campaign. Incumbent operators have often been asked to justify spending nearly $ 8 million on building a new district headquarters complex.

More: Drowning of raccoons in cages mentioned in the third lawsuit against the South Walton Mosquito Control District

Magee and Norris defend the cost as justified, claiming that only about half of the budgeted dollars, $ 3.8 million, will actually be used to build the new administration building to be built on the property on which the existing headquarters is located.

The rest of the money would be used to renovate a number of outbuildings, Norris said.

He said the funds to be spent have been put aside over time and the district does not need to borrow anything to pay for the project.

“We are very diligent and frugal with taxpayers’ money,” said Norris.

Johns and Liles, who advertise similar platforms, say the construction price is too high. Everyone said they wanted district funds to be used to better repair mosquito ditches and protect Choctawhatchee Bay.

“I think that’s a lot of money for this type of building,” said Johns of the proposed budget for administrative buildings.

She added that she would like to take a look at the outbuildings currently on the Mosquito Control District property and decide for herself whether to spend millions more to support or replace these structures.

More: The first of three lawsuits in the mosquito control district has been resolved

“The other structures out there are, as far as I can tell, garages,” she said. “I’m not sure these can be rebuilt for much less money.”

Buildings currently in the district’s land include the Administration Building, Mechanics’ Store, Chicken Coop, Truck Store / Garage, Quonset Hut, Adult Truck Building, and a renovated shed that is used as a The insectarium is used by Harley Sampson, Director of the Mosquito Control District.

The new administration building will replace one that has been at 393 County Road in Santa Rosa Beach since 1964, according to Magee. It has become prone to flooding as a development has occurred around it.

According to Norris, who has been a member of the Mosquito Control Board for 12 years and is leading the construction project, the headquarters flooded for the first time during a storm in 2015, and the district has not been able to get flood insurance since then.

Sampson said the administration building took in more than a foot of water twice during storms.

Walton County will not allow the construction of new buildings in the existing flood zone. As a result, there are plans to move the administration facility to a higher level and bring in enough debris to raise the floor “a few feet,” said Norris. The district paid approximately $ 375,000 for the project design.

According to Sampson, the new building will contain a renovated administration building with improved laboratory space and an insectarium. According to Norris, the groundbreaking is expected in early 2021.

The remainder of the site will, as planned, include a mechanic’s shop with space to park and service trucks, an education building, a structure that will house chickens for disease detection and fish to eat mosquito larvae, and stored chemicals. Concrete bunkers for the storage of dirt and riprap for the maintenance of mosquito ditches are also planned.

The South Walton Mosquito Control District is an independent tax district that serves the county below Choctawhatchee Bay. Approximately 28,000 voters live in the district and are eligible to participate in the board races.

Norris said he has never seen such interest in racing for the board of directors. Magee, who is aiming for a fifth four-year term, would be eligible for a lucrative state retirement program if he wins and serves through 2024. Johns claims state retirement should go to employees, not part-time board members.

This year’s races have gotten ugly at times. Magee filed an ethics complaint after Liles put a small Mosquito Control District seal on his campaign badge. The logo has since been removed.

More: Logo ethical complaint filed while racing in the South Walton Mosquito Control District

Liles and Johns say the district has grown fat under the leadership of Magee and Norris, that its budget has more than tripled in recent years, and that too much is being spent on travel, food and mileage for commissioners.

“The budget has gone from $ 6 million to $ 11 million, and I think a lot of the spending we’re seeing is unnecessary … along with the lawsuits,” Johns said.

Much of the interest in mosquito control district politics appears to have come from the notoriety it gained after three former employees sued the district. One, Emilee Rister, received $ 52,000 earlier this year as part of an agreement to settle a federal lawsuit alleging sexual harassment and retribution.

Two other former employees, Peter Brabant and Denis Rietenbach, filed lawsuits in the Circuit Court in Walton County.

Brabant claims he was fired due to a year-long disciplinary problem after going to the mosquito control district’s elected commissioners to report that former district director Ben Brewer had come to work “heavily intoxicated”. He was eventually released for refusing to carry out an order from Brewer to drown a raccoon that was captured in a live mosquito control district trap.

Rietenbach, a longtime field technician for the district, claims in a separate trial that he was released for fighting illegal chemicals being dumped in trenches in Choctawhatchee Bay and for defying orders to drown captured raccoons.

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