By Joseph A. Curtatone
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville Times belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville Times, its staff or publishers)
We all wish that sometimes we could snap our fingers and solve problems. Car suddenly breaks down and needs repairs? Fixed. Sudden illness requiring an unexpected trip to the doctor? Healed. Bug in your computer’s software? Zapped. This is impossible, as we all know. An investment of time and research to identify the problem and find the appropriate solution is needed first. It’s the same with public policy. Good public policy takes time, research and analysis of data and facts. A knee-jerk reaction won’t solve anything, at least not for long. Effective policy takes careful, prudent action based on a long-term strategy that is only possible after you’ve done your due diligence. And that’s exactly what we did with our plan to battle rats in Somerville.
We’ve seen the increase in rat complaints: from 457 calls between January and November of 2011, to 679 calls during the same time period last year, to 658 this year, a decrease from last year, but a high number of complaints nonetheless. We didn’t ignore it, but we also didn’t waste resources deploying short-term gimmicks that only yield patchwork, short-term results. Instead, while continuing and stepping up our existing rodent control efforts, which are on par with those of other cities, city staff began to study the issue. We looked for trends in rodent sightings data, researched best practices nationwide and then developed a long-term holistic approach that addresses the problem from all angles. We didn’t want to settle for what was good enough in other cities. We wanted to take what was working best and then develop a plan that would combine the most promising approaches in the best comprehensive pest management plan. We proposed our strategy only after we examined the facts, analyzed data and did the research on how to best apply your tax dollars to the problem.
The first question we asked: are we alone in this problem? The answer is emphatically “no.” The increase in reports of rodents mirrors increases in Boston, Chicago and New York. So it’s not just Somerville. That’s of little comfort to residents who spot burrows on their property, but it does rule out the idea that Somerville is Rat City. Knowing that Somerville isn’t alone in facing more rodent complaints begs the question: What do these cities have in common? The answer—backed up by data—is milder-than-usual winters. Reported rodent sightings increased in 2009 and then spiked after the winter of 2012, the warmest year on record for the United States. Without winters cold enough that naturally suppress rodent populations, rats continue to reproduce, resulting in increased sightings.
We can’t make winters colder on our own, so what can we do to combat this problem? We formed an interdepartmental Rodent Action Team to coalesce a year’s worth of work by various city departments into a unified, holistic plan based on their review of what we’ve been doing, what the data we’ve collected tells us about the issue and what’s been done elsewhere. The city can continue baiting public properties, but what about private property owners who discover an infestation but can’t afford to properly address the problem? Our new Residential Rodent Control Assistance Program will offer up to 2,000 qualifying homeowners each year—which reaches nearly one-third of owner-occupied one-to-three family homes in the entire city—free one-time rodent control services, in exchange for those property owners undertaking preventative measures like clearing debris from yards.
There’s one thing rats can’t survive without and it’s obvious: food. To deny rodents a food source, we’re proposing a uniform residential trash barrel program, through which residents will use city-issued plastic trash bins with attached lids that would prevent rats from getting at trash. At the business level, the new Code Enforcement Officer hired by Inspectional Services in October has already yielded demonstrable results after only a month, bringing in 117 new applications for dumpster licenses and ensuring that dumpster are regularly inspected, maintained, cleaned and licensed with the city.
Finally, we want to pilot innovative ideas like Rodent Fertility Management, as used by the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Biotechnology company SenesTech, Inc. will bring to us a proposal for a limited test run of humane, cutting-edge program that reduces rats reproductive capabilities through bait that does not affect other species or human and does not enter the food chain because it’s metabolized by rats within 15 minutes.
Every city has rats. What’s different in Somerville is that we have rat data and a rat plan. This is how we address every issue. We don’t guess, we don’t settle for the obvious and we don’t attack only the symptoms after they arise. The same way we can’t arrest our way out of crime, we can’t trap our way out of rats, we need to prevent the problem too. So we research, analyze data and make sure we’re addressing the source of the problem. Only after city staff has done that work can we come forward with a plan that strategically addresses the problem with the best possible policies, so we can have a long-term solution. That’s how you create good public policy. And that’s how we solve problems in Somerville.