Only a few years back crows by the hundreds would gather in the trees behind a house my family owns on the northeast side of town. They would chatter among themselves for several hours and then decamp en masse for another place only to return the next day. The crows don't come back now. The West Nile virus, which has decimated bird populations across the country, is a likely culprit.
West Nile virus is also a threat to human beings. It can cause meningitis, encephalitis, and now poliomyelitis (swelling of the spinal cord which can results in paralysis) in sufferers. There have been thousands of cases in the United States over the past few years. Michigan has been, fortunately, spared the worst of the disease. Only sixteen cases were reported in the state in 2004. West Nile has been most virulent in California and the Southwest. (Click on the map for details.)
Nevertheless, every summer still presents of risk of contracting West Nile virus, because the disease is spread by mosquito -- and the little bloodsucker is not jokingly known as the Michigan state bird without reason. Local mosquito control programs have been effective in suppressing these pests, but Grand Rapids City Manager Kurt Kimball wants to ax our program to deal with the City's $135 million five-year budget deficit.
The disease's northeasterly march towards the Great Lakes region is still over the horizon, so maybe the need for the program is not urgent. However, Kimball's proposed elimination of the City's mosquito control program is in concert with eliminating groundskeeping for City parks this summer. One can imagine the rich breeding grounds for mosquitos that a lack of park maintenance around the lagoons of Riverside Park, for example, will produce.
The things that directly benefit the residents and taxpayers of Grand Rapids, like mosquito control and mowed parks, are not what is sinking the City into the red. It's payroll for unnecessary administrative staff, free healthcare insurance for City employees, and an underfunded pension program that is the problem. The City used to be able to keep the parks open and clean and free of pests with a whole lot less in tax revenues. The one big thing that has ballooned over the past thirty years, while the City's population has remained stable, is the City's payroll.
It's time for City Manager Kimball to get back to some old-fashioned priorities: Residents and taxpayers first, City staff second. Tell Mayor Heartwell and the City Commission to keep our parks and neighborhoods healthy and safe this summer.