by Elizabeth Daley
September 30, 2010
Politicians, pest control workers and community members gathered in a trash-strewn area of Jackson Heights on Friday to protest the layoff of around two-thirds of city pest control aides, responsible for fighting rats on private properties.
Without the aides to clean lots, officials worry that the rat problem in Queens and around the city will get worse.
“Rats endanger the health and welfare of our residents,” said Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer (D-Sunnyside). “I have a block in my district in Long Island City that is just overrun with rats.”
Due to budget cuts, the remaining lot cleaners would now only be responding to the most “severe” cases of rat infestation, according to a spokeswoman for the Department of Health, which employed the workers.
In Queens, where there used to be 17 lot cleaners, there are now just three, according to the union — too few to handle the 18 to 30 infestation calls they receive each day.
In most cases, private property owners are required to hire independent companies to exterminate vermin. However, in a poor economy, many landlords may not want to pay for the service and could allow rat problems to get out of hand. Residents may have to live with vermin until the infestation warrants a call for city cleaners.
Coupled with decreased garbage pickups in some areas, elected officials worry that thanks to the layoffs, the city will soon belong to the rodents. “When you cut down on sanitation, this is where the garbage ends up,” said Councilman Danny Dromm (D-Jackson Heights) as he stood near styrofoam food containers and plastic bags by train tracks at the intersection of 69th Street and 35th Road.
As the trash accumulates, so do the animals that live in it. Dromm said he and a group of volunteers recently cleaned the area near the tracks, but a mess had once again appeared. There was not a trash can in sight. Elected officials worry that garbage piles will leave their communities to suffer at the gnawing teeth of rodents.
“Pest control defines a civilized society,” said Councilwoman Julissa Ferreras (D-East Elmhurst), “We cannot allow the front line in the war on pests to be ripped apart in the interest of saving a small amount of money.” In addition to being a nuisance, Ferreras said that rat infestation often causes the value of property to diminish.
However, according to the Health Department, citizens should not be worried. Officials say the city has a team of workers canvassing the borough for problem areas and a website called the Rat Information Portal at gis.nyc.gov/doh/rip where residents may report rat sightings. It is the Health Department’s hope that knowledge of the rats’ whereabouts will help residents take rat fighting into their own hands. City workers will continue to fight rats in parks and on public streets.
Cuts would only impact the lot cleaning program, but since rats scurry from place to place, politicians are concerned that any cut to pest control will allow them to thrive. “I am told they can have babies every 30 days,” Dromm said, alarmed.
The Health Department claims it simply could not afford to keep the rat fighters. Though cleaners earned the city money in the form of fees and tickets, according to the agency, the fees amounted to less than $1 million — not enough to pay for their services. The workers contend the layoffs saved $1.5 million, and though $1 million in funding was restored, they say the Department diverted the money towards fighting bedbugs and other pests.
The president of Local 768, Fitz Reid, said that in the long run, the layoffs will end up costing the city more than it will save. “Rats endanger our health, lower property values and our quality of life. Pest control aides make New York a cleaner, healthier and safety environment,” he said. “You do the math.”