Chief mosquito fighter paid more than sheriff

As long as we’re not getting eaten alive – and we’re not – nobody pays much attention to the Indian River Mosquito Control District.

But maybe we should, especially with two of three seats on the district’s Board of Commissioners to be decided in the Nov. 3 election.

Did you know that the mosquito district director gets paid $151,000 a year – more than the county’s sheriff?

Or that the assistant mosquito district director gets paid $118,000, which is more than the directors of similar agencies in Brevard and St. Lucie counties, both of which have larger populations?

Did you know that the district has two other employees who get paid more than $100,000, another who makes more than $90,000, and six with annual salaries between $79,000 and $89,000?

I didn’t.

I didn’t know any of this until a concerned reader sent me some documentation and suggested I watch the video of the Sept. 3 Mosquito Control District Board candidates forum, conducted virtually by the Taxpayers Association of Indian River County.

What I learned was jolting.

Just five years ago, District Director Doug Carlson earned a salary of $113,631. Since then, annual increases have taken that number to more than $150,000 – a 33-percent pay hike – with the biggest bumps coming in the two fiscal years since the commissioners received the results of a 2017 salary survey conducted by Cody & Associates, a Cocoa Beach-based human resources consulting firm.

According to Janice Broda, a commissioner since 1992, the $12,000 study examined the salaries of other mosquito control professionals in Florida, particularly those working for governmental agencies, and concluded that many mosquito district employees were underpaid.

In response, the board approved phased-in salary increases over a two-year period to close the supposed pay gap.

“The increases went to the district’s entire staff, not just to the director,” said Broda, who has a master’s degree in economics and taught classes in that subject as an adjunct professor at Indian River Community College from 1988 to 2000. “But the administration received larger raises, so we’re talking about only a few salaries.”

Those salaries add up, however.

The combined annual salaries of the five district employees who work in administration – the director, assistant director, administrative manager and two administrative assistants – currently exceed $480,000.

That’s a sizable amount for a district that has only 29 full-time employees and a $6.4 million budget.

While Broda admitted that “salaries might be too high now,” she defended Carlson’s merit raises, despite his professional peers in Brevard and St. Lucie making significantly less money – $86,000 in Brevard and $104,000 in St. Lucie.

She cited the district’s effectiveness under his supervision in controlling mosquitoes that can threaten the county’s public health and diminish our quality of life, as well as his four decades with the agency – the past 17 years as director. She also noted the high regard with which he is held in Florida’s mosquito control community.

“The directors in the neighboring counties have less experience and longevity,” Broda said, “and they don’t have nearly the same credentials.”

Carlson did not seek a raise this year.

Still, Broda said she wants the board to authorize a new independent salary study, “so the taxpayers can be assured that they’re paying the district’s employees fairly and appropriately,” adding that the 2017 report recommended that such surveys be conducted “every two to three years to assess market conditions.”

Salaries could be frozen if a new study found that the district employees were overpaid, she said, but it’s very unlikely anyone would suffer a pay cut.

“Rolling back salaries would be very hard to do,” Broda said, “and something I wouldn’t want to do.”

“The board has been silent about [the high salaries] until it became an issue during the campaign,” said Jeff Andros, one of two candidates challenging Broda for Seat 1 on the district board.

Matt Erpenbeck and Vada Mossavat, who are challenging incumbent Louis “Buck” Vocelle Jr. for seat 3 on the board, likewise expressed concerns during the forum about district salaries and the board’s fiscal oversight.

Mossavat mentioned the district’s “personnel costs” when compared to other counties and wondered if the board had considered giving taxpayers some relief.

“The board voted for these increases, but the taxpayers are footing the bill for this,” she said. “What additional benefits are they getting [for the higher salaries]?”

The Mosquito District board members, for their part, receive relatively modest stipends – $4,800 per year plus health insurance. Broda said the compensation for commissioners is unchanged in the past 28 years.