Taking the time to develop rat solutions, good public policy

On December 12, 2013, in Latest News, by The Somerville Times

mayor_webBy 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.


19 Responses to “Taking the time to develop rat solutions, good public policy”

  1. Joe Lynch says:

    So all the expense for rodent control now goes on the back of the residents and businesses of the city.

    And not a word or thought into ensuring that developers who demolish whole blocks of existing buildings are mandated, prior to demolition, to bait and control the spread of rodents into other folks property.

    While the plans sound like a good start, to ignore one of the sources of the spread of rodents, sounds more like a determined policy of avoidance in favor of big money developers.

  2. freedomforthepeople says:

    I totaly agree with Joe ,the problem starts with the two legged rats, who are making millions with our tax payers money,more consultant fees ,it is quite obvious that the problem starts with our city manager aka. the mayor, he does not know how to manage so he takes our tax dollars and pays someone else to do his job.I would like to know when the progressives will wake up and hold him accountable as we elected you to manage our city not to outsource it which you are quite good at.I am sick and tired of your lets put this data in a computer and then we will get the answer ,do we not have a department that is there job to check on places we suspect would have four legged rats common sence try it,it does work.I think you should get too work and do what the people elected you to do manage our city without bankrupting it.

  3. Philb says:

    If it were me, I’d fine the heck out of anyone violating the trash ordinances, which like or not, is primarily residents and some businesses with dumpsters. The mayor diplomatically is not fining offenders, and instead is giving everyone new barrels so no one feels persecuted. People have a hard time accepting that their behavior is wrong, it is just human nature. Mayor Joe is wise to sidestep that issue, even if it is more expensive to do so because a bunch of stupid citizens would be complaining just like they do about parking tickets. You only have to walk around to see the garbage cans and dumpsters without tight fitting lids. Joe Lynch, you are not trying to tell me you don’t see this on your walks?

    The idea that construction sites are attracting rats is a fantasy, they just move them around temporarily. I know it is always easiest to point fingers on people who might not live in the city, but focus needs to be on actual causes: food sources and breeding if possible.

  4. wrong says:

    you are so wrong to dismiss the role of development in the rodent issue. dumpsters and portapotties have brought the varmints to my neighborhood where we never had them before. three monster developments, over the past few years, not at the same time. Portapotties mean human waste and water sitting there for weeks. I tracked how often they were changed, and it’s clearly a rat magnet. we have nobody violating the trash rules, everything is locked up tight. On top of the above issues, construction obviously displaces underground nests. If you’re making money doing that, you should have some responsibility in mitigating it. I think that’s pretty simple and makes sense.

  5. Joe Lynch says:

    Phipb, Tackling the rodent infestation in the city will not be easy. I get it. And yes I do see the properties where both residential buildings and commercial entities continue to violate the trash ordinances. I would continue to fine and ticket them, not “diplomatically” not fine them.

    My point is that in order to have an effective and comprehensive plan, the city cannot ignore one of the components. And that is that major construction, especially massive below ground disturbances usually associated with building demolition, “just move them around temporarily”.

    I do give the city credit for introducing a plan, but it has to be comprehensive, and not selective.

  6. Linda says:

    Big thanks to Alderman Courtney O’Keefe for requesting that developers bait their projects at last night’s meeting. One of the many reasons why I will miss her.

  7. ritepride says:

    Baiting only limits solving the problem and wastes money. Going after the nests eliminates the problem.

  8. freedomforthepeople says:

    I wish the communications dept. would stop putting propagander in there comments, take a good look at city hall trash bags just put out side no covers .The truth is you are a bunch of bullies who use your power to push the good citizens of somerville around,or if you are just a methane sniffing elietist go pound sand ,the real people of somerville are tired of your little class system you have emerssed your selves in ,aka. the me generation.The massive development started as the new mayor was elected ,ask his good friend commissionr KOTY ,he did this back in the day with MR. Vincent Pero and stole millions and its happening again ,this is your real problem learn the cities history first then get back to us .I would like to thank you also for welcoming us to the police state of mind in this city ,lets hire another 140 officers for four square miles are you kidding me.

  9. murt says:

    freedomforthepeople, i DIG what yer saying

  10. sick and tired says:

    Why don’t we do what lots of other cities do? When a developer wishes to build, they must first put a certain amount of money into a city escrow account, to pay for things like rat infestations in the neighborhood, etc.? The city has open trash cans in all city squares, parks, and the bike path. Over the weekend they fill to overflowing with food and dog poop. But if I live nearby and have a rat problem, I caused it?????

  11. Pixie Pocahontas says:


    Obviously there are other plans for developers than making them be held accountable for what is just.

    There are those in power who do what they want and to hell with ethics and moral obligations. What’s good for you and me goes out the window, what’s good for them is an entirely different matter.

  12. MarketMan says:

    We need to replace open trash cans with the sealed type. And put more of them in popular areas. We need to fine offenders. We need to find people who leave their property unkept and full of debris.

  13. Taspayer says:

    The city completely blew it by not putting controls on developers and holding them responsible for the associated cost for rodent controls.
    It’s obvious that the massive amount of development is the problem not the home owner and trash barrels. Why do the surrounding communities not have the problem we do ez they don’t have the amount of construction and demolition going on as we do.
    If the Mayor should of done all his studying and collecting of data before the dirt shovel was ever put into the ground. A proactive rodent control plan should have been in place . Now as the developers walk free it’s left for us the taxpayers to pay the price as displaced rodents run through our yards and parks.
    The Mayors comments are laughable, and arrogant comparing us with Boston, New York and Chicago. We are rat city Joe thanks to your lack of planning, and catering to big money developers.

  14. Joe Lynch says:


    My sentiments exactly. I don’t put all the blame on all the developers or the Mayor. But it still stings when I think of the reaction my neighbors and I received from the city and elected officials at the time of the Maxwell’s Green demolition. We asked for an evaluation of the potential for rodent problems once the demo began and silly us, we took the administration at their word that our fears were unfounded and that the developer would be responsible for any problems.

    For those of us who were actively involved, we trusted and got screwed. Immediately after the demolition began, our neighborhood experienced an influx of skunk, possum and rats. Complaints to elected and administration officials went largely ignored. Since that time, the skunks and possum have moved on, but the rat problem was dumped in the lap of the residents to deal with. I know of at least 5 neighbors who, at their own considerable expense, have contracted with private firms for rodent control. A few weeks ago, I wrote a letter to another media outlet asking residents to contact their alderman and support, via city ordinance, a requirement for all demolition parties to provide rodent control procedures PRIOR to any demolition.

    This will not be as simple as submitting a Board Order. It will take a coordinated effort and persistence by all the stakeholders. And that includes the city, the new Board of Alderman, developers and most importantly, those of us who despise the fact that we have rats amongst us.

  15. Lucas says:

    Baiting for all types of animals should happen throughout the course of the construction-MOST IMPORTANTLY-at the beginning. This is something that the Mayor should come up with on his own and not need the order of an alderman to initiate. I adore Courtney and will miss her tremendously, but she should not have had to submit an order for something that should have been part of the plan all along.

  16. Mike says:

    Why wouldn’t this new rat taskforce recommend that and why wasn’t Courtney put on it?

  17. murt says:

    rat talking about rats.writing about rats.

  18. sickandtired says:

    I was involved in meetings for the development of a long-vacant building. We were able to have a condition put into the special permit regarding baiting for rodent/animal control. This is only because we fought hard for it. It included baiting/removing prior to the beginning of construction, and informing neighbors prior to baiting due to issues with the neighbors’ cats. However, it doesn’t end there, because the city does not oversee that the developer is following any of the conditions or the permit itself. Neighbors must be always vigilant and report any variations from what is allowed.

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