News: CJ Exclusives

Who Wants a Pest Control Facility?

A “structural pest control training facility” for North Carolina State University was included in this year’s state budget, even though university officials say the project wasn’t a priority.

Lawmakers allocated $310,000, to be paid for with borrowed money, for the project. The facility consists of a modest classroom building and a concrete foundation upon which the Department of Entomology will simulate various styles of construction found in the state. Instructors will use the slab and faux structure to demonstrate proper treatments for subterranean termite prevention and extermination.

Four university representatives interviewed by Carolina Journal said the facility has been on the drawing board for a few years, but none asked for it in another year of state budget difficulties.

“It wasn’t anything we did or the faculty did,” said Andy Willis, assistant to the chancellor for external affairs at NCSU. “It was not part of our priorities and we did not seek it.”

Willis said that about one month before the state budget was finalized, the General Assembly fiscal research staff requested that he work up a cost estimate for the termite facility. He said several other universities in the Southeast have similar projects, which he used as resources for his calculations.

Leaders in the NCSU College of Agriculture and Life Sciences verified Willis’s claim that the university didn’t lobby for the project. Dr. James Harper, head of the Department of Entomology, acknowledged that his faculty has wanted the structure for a number of years, but he said he didn’t know of anyone who lobbied for it.

Asked whether he expected to get the project, Harper said, “Given the situation this year, no.” He said because of the state’s recent budget difficulties, “everything’s been going (financially) backward for us for years now.”

Winston Hagler of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences also pleaded ignorance to the identity of the project’s advocate. “As to why [the pest control center] appeared,” he said, “I don’t know.”

Mark Fleming, associate vice president for state governmental affairs for the UNC system, was also in the dark, although he knew that it “was an item that came up in the last minutes of the legislature.”

Carl Falco, director of the structural pest control division in the state Department of Agriculture, said he was aware of the project because he received a late request for cost information from House Speaker Jim Black’s office. Black’s son owns a pest control company. Chad Lowery in Black’s office did not return calls inquiring about the project.

Falco said that he didn’t expect anything to come of Black’s inquiry but that the state needed the facility to improve training of pest control specialists. “The better the training is,” he said, “the better the service to consumers. (Termite) pretreatments have been a problem area, and we have tried to address it every way we can.”

Falco also expressed surprise that it was in the budget, and said, “We did not try to pursue this.”

Nor did the obvious lobbying suspect in the state: The North Carolina Pest Control Association. Told that no one claimed responsibility for the project, NCPCA President Walt Cooper said, “You’ll have to put me in that category also.”

Likewise, the organization’s executive director, Mike Borden, said, “I don’t know the source of it. None of us in our wildest dreams thought that if we approached [the idea], that it would come about.”

Finally, a legislative staffer pegged Rep. Dewey Hill, a Whiteville Democrat, as the advocate of the termite facility. Reached by telephone, Hill confirmed that he pushed for the project, and that the university didn’t seek it. “They were not exactly in favor of it,” Hill said. “It sure was not high on their priority list.

“Local people in Bladen County and Columbus County (Hill’s territory) worked with me on it,” Hill said. He said pest-control businessmen in his area were “getting crucified” by Agriculture Department officials because “they tried to do something they thought was right, and it wasn’t.”

Falco said he didn’t know of any specific problems with termite control service in Bladen or Columbus counties, but he didn’t deny that it was possible.

Hill couldn’t explain why budgeters arranged to use borrowed money to fund the facility.

Lawmakers dramatically increased the use of the so-called “certificates of participation” in the new budget finalized in June. Pleased with the way it funded three new prisons for $224 million in 2001, the Assembly broadened the certificates’ scope in the 2003 budget.

Legislators use the financing method because the capital projects run into millions of dollars in costs — a profile that didn’t fit the termite facility. In June legislators authorized the lease-purchase agreements that may borrow as much as $800 million for: five more prisons; preliminary work on three juvenile delinquency facilities; a new state psychiatric hospital; and funding for renovation and repairs to state property.

A university system official suggested that funding the $310,000 for the termite facility was awkward for a comparatively small amount of money — making it much more difficult to manage than if the Assembly simply appropriated the money.

While Hill succeeded at getting the facility, the people who budgeted the project under borrowed funds are still anonymous. “What usually happens is someone wants it and they can’t get it through ordinary means,” said state Sen. Richard Stevens, R-Wake.

Sen. Fred Smith, a Clayton Republican, said he couldn’t offer an opinion on the necessity of the termite facility, but he did condemn the process.

“It’s another example where we sat there the whole session saying ‘we didn’t have enough money,’ then these things appear in the cover of darkness,” he said. “It’s not a good way to manage the people’s business.”

Chesser is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.