Special Report: Rats in the city of Memphis - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Special Report: Rats in the city of Memphis

By Anna Marie Hartman - bio | email | Twitter | Facebook

MEMPHIS, TN (WMC-TV) - They're filthy, disgusting, and sometimes it seems like they are everywhere: rats.  Action News 5 began asking questions about rodent control months ago, after a Memphis City Council member suggested adding a 75 cent fee to your monthly MLGW bill.

That fee funds Vector Control's mosquito and rodent control programs, and it cost ratepayers $3.6 million last year alone! 

"It's an expense that's really useless," Memphis resident Jaime Bryson said. "Where's it going is my question, cause I see rats every day."

Most of the money, $2.9 million, goes to mosquito control.  It's the amount left over that had Action News 5 sniffing out a rat!

Weeks ago, Action News 5 asked for a detailed rodent control budget from Health Department Public Information Officer Nicole Lacey.  What we received was an email stating the cost for Vector Control's 2009-2010 Rodent Control Program is $591,824 for salaries and benefits, and only $58,000 for operations and maintenance.

When we asked a second and third time to see a budget breakdown for rodent control, Health Department Director Yvonne Madlock said there was no separate budget for rodent control.

If there is no budget, Action News 5's Anna Marie Hartman asked, where did that figure come from?

"I think that was the best guess estimate of someone here on staff," Madlock said.

A 'guess estimate' for a government-run program that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars each year...

"One of the things I've always been aware of is this community has always had a tremendous interest in mosquito control and rodent control for good public health reasons," Madlock said.

But that interest is not enough, apparently, to provide a detailed record of rodent control expenses.  Madlock gave Action News 5 another guess estimate for rodent control maintenance and operating costs, totaling $65,650 - $7,000 more than the estimate provided by Lacey.

Salaries for rodent control employees also grew, to $636,898.  So what, exactly, are you getting for that money?

"We have a work force here that we can handle any rat control problem within 32 hours," the Health Department's Norman LaChapelle said.

A work force of eight trained field inspectors and one supervisor who respond to thousands of calls annually, at an average of at least 10 calls a day.  Their role is to identify neglected areas outdoors where rats can eat, drink, nest and multiply.  In some cases they set traps, and they have the power to cite property owners who refuse to clean up.

Madlock said the operation is effective.

"We are not exterminators, we are not here and our goal is never to eradicate mosquitos or rodents," she said. "It is the responsibility of the homeowner by city code to exterminate to be responsible for extermination of rodents."

Madlock said public awareness of the conditions that breed rats is a top priority for the Health Department and Vector Control.

"We speak at public meetings, neighborhood associations...we speak at schools (and) we have brochures that we distribute," she said.

There are informational displays at local libraries also. Action News 5 was told we could find one of those displays at the Ben Hooks Public Library on Poplar.  We went by twice over a three-day period, but a library specialist said the display was put up and taken down the one day our cameras were not there.

"There probably could be a more intensive public education effort, but it is certainly a focused public education effort that we put forth," Madlock said.

Shelby County Commissioner Mike Carpenter believes exterminators may be the answer to rodent control, and has set up an action committee to explore the idea.

"It's very important that we have dedicated a department to rodent control," he said. "I think now we have to determine if we're using it as efficiently as we can and as effectively as we can."

But that may be easier said than done.

"The last thing we'd want to do is come back to the citizens and say we'd like to raise the fee, but if that really is necessary, it would behoove us to be able to justify that," Madlock said.

The Mosquito and Rodent Control Program's primary goal is to protect the community's health against vector borne diseases.

If you have rats here's what you can do:

Call Vector Control control at 901-324-5547 and complain.  They say they can respond to any rat control problem within 32 hours. Keep in mind, it's not Vector Control's intent to kill all your rats. While you're paying them, you'll also have to pay someone else to do that dirty work.

For prevention tips and answers to frequently asked questions about rodent control, click here.

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