New York vs Bed Bugs: We are very impressed with the task force and understand it’s a volunteer organization?
Paul Wenning: We’ve known it was just a matter of time before bed bugs became a large problem in Greater Columbus. I had a series of conversations with officials from Cincinnati and Hamilton County (Greater Cincinnati) in the early autumn of 2008, and the astronomical rise in the number of cases there over a five year period convinced me that we had to take action and quickly. I began conversations with Dr. Susan Jones, from the Ohio State University Extension Office, who is also a leading expert on bed bugs. We quickly created a Bed Bug Summit, to which representatives of the City of Columbus, the suburbs, and County agencies were invited. It was well attended, and at the end of the program, I asked for volunteers to help establish a Bed Bug Task Force for Columbus and Franklin County. We held our first meeting in November, and I set forth a series of goals and objectives for the group to discuss. They were:
- Develop consistent messages for the residents of the area concerning bed bugs;
- Develop methods to educate our communities about bed bugs;
- Dispel the myths surrounding bed bugs;
- Target groups and populations who were at the greatest risk of getting or spreading bed bugs.
The group members agreed with those goals with some modifications. We immediately established subcommittees composed of people with real experience for each of our target communities, including rental housing, and code enforcement; schools, hotels and transient housing, public safety, health care, and social service agencies, and media outreach / public education.
We also committed to the development of a website. Our agency agreed to fund the development and maintenance of the site, but we made it clear that we would rely on the other members for content. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the enthusiasm and hard work that our members have shown.
New York vs Bed Bugs: How many agencies and stakeholders are actively involved in the task force? What are the jurisdictional areas? Columbus and surrounding counties?
Paul Wenning: Right now, we are restricting our focus to Columbus and Franklin County. We’ve had requests from the City of Dayton, and from smaller communities in the outlying counties to join the COBBTF, but frankly, since this is a voluntary effort, we just cannot coordinate anything larger than we have at present. That may change in the distant future, but it would require significant funding first.
Our area is a hodge-podge of local jurisdictions. We have the remnants of 17 townships left in the county, 12 or more communities that are cities (populations > 5,000 – though most of them far exceed that figure) under the Ohio Revised Code, the City of Columbus, and a few small villages. Each community has its own school system, fire and police departments and code enforcement officials. Our health department serves all of the communities with the exception of Columbus. It has its own health department.
Our total population is about 1.2 million and growing. Our population is very diverse. We have a large Somali population, a very large Hispanic population, a sizeable Asian population, and growing Pakistani and Indian populations.
At present, members of the COBBTF represent:
- 4 local fire departments;
- Code Officials from the City of Columbus and 5 suburbs;
- School nurses from Columbus and the Cities of Westerville and Upper Arlington;
- Representatives of the pest control industry (5);
- Representatives from the rental housing industry (mainly property managers and maintenance staff);
- The Central Ohio Agency on Aging;
- Ohio State University Student Housing;
- The Urban League;
- Franklin County Job and Family Services;
- OSU Extension;
- The State Departments of Health (schools, nursing homes), Agriculture (pesticides), Commerce (used furniture and hotel licensing);
- The City of Grove City Travel and Tourism Board;
- Franklin County Office on Aging;
- Franklin County Legal Aid;
- Franklin County and Columbus Health Departments;
- Local hospitals.
I’m sure that I’ve forgotten several people. They are listed on the web site under the partners tab.
New York vs Bed Bugs: At the EPA bed bug summit we heard there was disagreement about what to do. How have you coped with the potential for similar disagreement within the task force, particularly with such a large number of volunteers?
Paul Wenning: We haven’t had too much disagreement within the group. By keeping our general goals and objectives broad enough, and by vesting the responsibility for each subcommittee to decide how they will address the issues in ways that are productive to their constituencies, I think that we’ve avoided all of that. When the COBBTF first formed, I made it clear to the subcommittee chairs that we considered them to be the experts at reaching their populations. We (the Steering Committee) exist to help them achieve their objectives. And we’ve hewn to that philosophy. I think it has made a huge difference in the way that the Task Force has operated.
New York vs Bed Bugs: What is the legal framework for landlord/tenant bed bug issues in the task force’s areas of operation? Is there clarity on rights and responsibilities? I’ve been reading about the Columbus Apartment Association’s new rules and regs, and I’m troubled by the lack of clarity and potential to blame tenants, which should predictably result in decreased reporting of bed bug infestations. These situations usually spell disaster for control efforts.
Paul Wenning: As far as enforcement, bed bug complaints are handled by the Franklin County Board of Health (outside of Columbus) and Columbus Code Enforcement in the City. We’ve held several meeting with one another and we have adopted very similar enforcement strategies, in order to present a consistent message to our residents. Bed bugs are considered a nuisance under the Ohio Revised Code, and we must always name “the property owner of record” in any enforcement action that we take. However, we also name the tenants in the complaint if they are recalcitrant and refuse to assist the landlord in his or her efforts, by maintaining their unit in a clean and sanitary condition, encasing mattresses, etc.
The Columbus Apartment Association developed a document on its own that is now in circulation on the web and that is being disseminated by its representatives. The document has been submitted to the COBBTF Housing Subcommittee for review and amendment, but it is NOT a COBBTF document, and some of our members, especially from tenant’s right’s groups will not accept it without significant revision so that it is more balanced. The Housing Subcommittee members have told me that they think that the basic information is useful, but that they expect that it will be some time before a final draft is submitted to the Steering Committee.
New York vs Bed Bugs: What sort of challenges have you identified? There’s the gamut of bed bug problems, resources, legal issues, access to bed bug control services. In NYC one of the most challenging problems is access to pest control services. Another sort of intractable problem here is posed by refurbished mattresses. What are yours?
Paul Wenning: Our biggest challenges are: 1) Lack of funding; 2) Used mattress and furniture dealers; 3) Apathy; 4) Lack of personnel; 5) Availability of pest control for poor residents. In short, the same issues that you have!
New York vs Bed Bugs: Are you tracking infestations? What are the available statistics?
Paul Wenning: We haven’t developed a good tracking system yet. We’re working with Columbus Code Enforcement to develop a system, but it will take us awhile. We are informally tracking numbers now, but we do want to get a sysem together as soon as we can.
New York vs Bed Bugs: What are the critical needs? What can the people of Ohio and others, state legislators and federal agencies, do to help?
Paul Wenning: I’ll have to think more about what we need the most. Information is always helpful. A new USEPA policy allowing the use of restricted pesticides would help. Money for pesticide treatment for low income residents and senior citizens, and education and outreach would help, too. I’d also like to see the State Legislature place significantly stronger restrictions upon the sellers of used furniture and household goods that would require them to PROPERLY treat items before they are placed for sale, and would restrict ANYONE from selling discarded furniture that they collect from the alleys or dumpsters. Right now there are no restrictions upon that activity.
That’s the “short list.” I’m sure I’ll think of more.