Ag station closures mean job losses for department |

Ag station closures mean job losses for department

Colin FisherPat Wilson checks on a truck passing through the Truckee agriculture inspection station Thursday.

Pests such as red imported fire ants, glassy-winged sharpshooters and fruit flies may find that getting into California will become easier after the closure of 11 of the 16 currently active agricultural inspection stations along the California border.

But many workers at the Truckee station may be more worried about their jobs.

On Aug. 10, Truckee residents and travelers alike probably noticed when inspectors no longer stopped passenger vehicles at the bug station on Interstate 80. Since then, inspectors at all of the state’s inspection stations have only screened commercial vehicles – historically the most threatening source of pests due to the large numbers of pests that can be transported by truck.

Commonly known as “bug stations,” the facilities and the inspectors who staff them serve as the first line of defense against invading species for the state’s $27 billion agricultural economy. However, recent budget deficits have left the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) unable to fund the continued operation of 11 inspection stations.

The 11 stations targeted for closure in late January, 2004 are Winterhaven (Interstate 8), Smith River (Highway 101), Long Valley (Highways 70 and 395), Dorris (Highway 97), Redwood (Highway 199), Topaz (Highway 395), Benton (U.S. 6), Tulelake (Highway 139), Meyers (Highway 50), Hornbrook (Interstate 5) and Alturas (Highway 395).

According to the CDFA, the remaining five inspection stations will be able to cover 80 percent of the commercial traffic entering the state.

While the Truckee inspection station is not scheduled to close, local inspectors will feel the effects.

Gary Cox, a Truckee inspector and union steward for the California State Employees Association, said he worries about what effects the bug station closures will have on California farmers. He is also concerned with how the reduction in staffing will affect the current Truckee inspectors.

Because the CDFA gives priority to inspectors with the most seniority state-wide, Cox believes that only those employees with more than 15 years of qualified state service – three to five of the current 16 Truckee employees – will retain their jobs.

Of the employees who will be laid off, those older than 50 will have the option of retiring. The rest will need to find another job with the state or federal government if they want to retain their seniority and benefits.

“What I’m worried about are the other people who aren’t of my age and eligible for retirement,” Cox said.

Possibilities in this area include the California Highway Patrol, the California Parks and Recreation Department, Caltrans and the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection; however, Cox points out that all of these departments are facing budget cuts of their own.

Steve Lyle worries about what the effects of closing the inspection stations will have on California’s agricultural industry and native species. “This is unfortunate as the ag-stations are our first line of defense against invading species,” Lyle said, adding “the loss of 11 stations will impact our ability to carry out our mission.”

He likened the current budget situation to that of a family having to decide between health insurance and food. Unfortunately, the agricultural inspection stations are like health insurance, vitally important but not as immediately necessary as other programs.

According to Steve Lyle, Director of Public Affairs for the CDFA, 52 of the current 128 inspectors throughout the state will be laid off. The remaining 76 employees will continue staffing the 5 stations that remain open.

The cuts were expected as state employees learned of a budget deficit of $38.6 billion in January 2003. The agency draws its funding from the state’s dwindling general fund.

According to Lyle, inspectors intercepted approximately 1,100 type-A pests at the California border stations last year. Type-A pests are defined as those that pose the most danger to California’s agriculture and native species. Examples include: fruit flies, which decimate citrus and other produce crops; gypsy moths, whose larvae feed on hundreds of plant species; red imported fire ants, which have the potential to drive away ground-nesting animals such as reptiles, birds, mammals and other insects; and glassy-winged sharpshooters, which are known to spread the destructive Pierce’s disease bacterium to grapes and other crops.

The cost of eradicating infestations of any of these pests can be enormous.

According to the CDFA’s publication Preventing Biological Pollution: The Mediterranean Fruit Fly Exclusion Program, “If California were to become suddenly and broadly infested with the Medfly, first-year losses would be measured in the billions of dollars.”

Cox likes to compare those numbers to the operating budget for the inspections stations. The operating budget for all 16 inspection stations during the last fiscal year was $10.3 million while the budget for the remaining five stations is forecast to be $4.9 million. “I don’t feel closing any of these bug stations right now is justified based on the cost of an infestation,” Cox said.

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