2013-07-18 / Front Page

Council takes aim at Lyme disease

Expert says island deer produce as many as 250 million ticks per year
By Margo Sullivan

The man known as Dr. Tick gave the Town Council a crash course on Lyme disease Monday night.

Dr. Tom Mather, director of the University of Rhode Island’s Center for Vector-Borne Disease, told the councilors the number of deer ticks that communicate Lyme disease reached a record high last year in Rhode Island. So far this year, he said, the number of deer ticks in Jamestown is actually running ahead of the census a year ago.

More ticks will mean more cases of Lyme disease, but despite warnings, Mather says the public continues to resist taking proper protection measures. Mather, who is a professor of entomology, attended the meeting in summer attire to make a point that people can wear shorts and short-sleeve shirts and still be protected if they use a tick repellent.

The cost is about $24, Mather said. There’s no excuse for not taking the precaution, he added, unless people are not aware about its effectiveness.

“Maybe the town can step forward and help their residents know what they should be doing,” he said.

Mather worked with the former council on Lyme reduction after he was awarded a grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC gave Jamestown and Block Island grant money to develop action plans. According to Mather, both communities “made about the same progress.” Although the grant money ran out before the work was complete, the groundwork has been laid and the project could be revived.

“So no need to reinvent the wheel,” Council President Kristine Trocki said.

During Mather’s first stint in Jamestown, the former councilors hired a consultant who was familiar with the tick problem on the island. They also brought in a CDC doctor and a Tufts University veterinarian to help with fact-finding.

“We developed a lot of information that has yet to be fully integrated into a plan,” said Mather. The step never completed was to present the plan at a town meeting.

Ultimately, Jamestown’s solution will rely on the deer population. Mather said the town needs to decide what to do about the deer, if anything. He also said a community forum could be scheduled to listen to “resident concerns about the impact of Lyme on their lives.”

According to his past studies, deer were not living in Jamestown before 1986. However, Mather said, talking about killing deer to control ticks will be a “nonstarter” in Jamestown. He compared the strategy to telling people to wear long pants in the summer and tuck the cuffs into their socks. Islanders will not be on board with either, he said.

Moreover, trying to eradicate the deer on the island would not be a realistic way to deal with the Lyme problem, he said, even if the politics did not polarize the community. The deer census shows 500 deer are living on the island, roughly 50 per square mile. To eliminate Lyme disease, the consultant found the deer population would have to be reduced to 100. Over 20 years, that goal might be feasible, but it’s not something that hunters could accomplish in the short-term.

The reason, according to Town Administrator Bruce Keiser, is because deer are already being taken in almost all locations where hunters can go without endangering the general population.

The Town Council could open the reservoir properties for hunting, Keiser said, and probably should consider taking that measure at the upcoming council meeting in August.

Also, the town and state could increase the deer harvest, Mather said, but personal protection is probably the best way people can avoid deer ticks and illness.

Besides treating clothing, Mather said, residents can take control of their backyards. Lawn treatments have proven effective against Lyme disease, he said.

According to Mather, the Town Council could come up with a list of the top five ways to prevent Lyme disease. However, he said people are not always willing to do the simple things to stay safe.

“We have some answers, but we don’t have people that are listening,” he said.

Councilor Eugene Mihaly said the next step should be to make a plan and decide “who’s going to do what.” The councilors will discuss the issue again in August.

In other business, Finance Director Tina Collins has been named the interim town administrator. She will take over for Keiser when he retires at the end of August.

Collins will stay in the post until a new chief executive is selected, the councilors said.

The councilors did not specify the dollar amount she will receive in compensation, but agreed she will receive the same amount as Keiser was collecting in base pay. (His annual salary is $103,340, according to the 2013-14 budget. As finance director, Collins’ salary is $82,426.)

The councilors met in executive session to discuss the interim appointment. They then went back into open session to vote and announce the decision. Collins waited outside the council chambers through most of the closed-door session, until she was called inside.

The open meeting resumed a few minutes later. The councilors voted to appoint her, and Collins accepted the assignment.

“I’m honored,” she said.

In a related development, Town Clerk Cheryl Fernstrom reported that 23 people have applied for the town administrator’s vacancy. Councilor Mary Meagher said the application deadline had closed, and many of the applications came in at the last minute.

The council did not announce the names of any candidates but did appoint the seven-member panel, including two councilors, who will conduct the search for Keiser’s replacement.

Mihaly and Councilor Blake Dickinson will represent the Town Council on the search committee. The other committee members are Arlene Petit, Cathy Kaiser, Melody Drnach, John Murphy and Anthony Antine.

According to Trocki, 13 residents applied for the search committee. She said she was pleased about the number of people who had sent applications and letters of interest.

According to Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero, the search committee will evaluate the candidates behind closed doors.

The first meeting will be organizational, Keiser said. He indicated the main task would be to elect a committee chairman, distribute the information about the 23 hopefuls, and “go on from there.”

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