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A movable feast for local rats; New county policy passes job of fighting voracious vermin to towns and villages

It's a good time to be a rat in Erie County.

Loosely sealed garbage cans, fully exposed compost piles, heavily used bird feeders and uncollected dog feces amount to a never-ending smorgasbord for our rodent friends.

On top of that, the county has passed the rat-fighting burden on to its towns and villages, but not every suburban government is actively trapping or killing these rodents.

"We're starting to narrow in on where we see problems," said Highway Superintendent Robert Anderson of Amherst, which has hired Orkin to respond to rat complaints in the town.

Erie County's Vector and Pest Control Program has long been the central resource in the local fight against rats, which began moving from Buffalo to the suburbs years ago.

This year County Executive Chris Collins put an end to the county's role in rat baiting and trapping, later setting aside $70,000 for locally based rat-control efforts.

"Erie County continues to provide what the state mandates for vector and pest control," said Collins spokesman Grant Loomis, noting the Health Department still takes rat complaints, sends employees to properties when appropriate and suggests ways to eliminate food sources.

However, the county hasn't spent any of its rat funds, and suburban rodent-control efforts vary from town to village.

The Village of Lancaster, for example, hasn't had an employee certified to put out rat poison since spring 2010, but plans to hire a contractor next month to do the job.

Cheektowaga gives advice to residents who complain, but rarely traps or poisons its rats.

"It's up to the property owner to control the issue," said Larry Kensy, managing housing inspector for Cheektowaga. "Big brother can't always come to save the little brother, let's put it that way."

Not every town or village keeps close track of their rat complaints, so it's hard to say whether rat sightings have risen this year.

Among those that do, Amherst saw the number of complaints fall from 2008 to 2009 before rising in 2010 -- to 236 -- and reaching 115 as of mid-August, according to the town Highway Department. Those complaints include skunks, woodchucks and other rodents, not just rats, Anderson said.

Erie County's Health Department logged 2,964 rat complaints in 2010 and 999 through Aug. 24 of this year, according to department data, which may include more than one complaint for a single address.

More than half the complaints came from Buffalo, with notable totals of 16 percent from Cheektowaga and 9 percent from the Town of Tonawanda.

"We think they travel out by rail," quipped Lancaster Village Mayor William G. Cansdale Jr.

After Buffalo required its residents to use totes for their garbage, rats began moving to the suburbs to find food.

The Town and City of Tonawanda, Amherst, Williamsville and Kenmore require garbage totes, but Cheektowaga, Lancaster and West Seneca do not.

"That has cut down tremendously" on rodent complaints, Amherst's Anderson said.

Erie County used to distribute rat traps and poison, but Collins ended that unmandated program this year for budget reasons.

After some county legislators complained, Collins agreed to use surplus money to set up a $70,000 rat-control fund.

The county is barred from paying to supply residents or suburban government employees with rat-baiting kits.

The money can be used to pay for the training required by the state Department of Environmental Conservation for any employee to be certified to put out the chemicals.

The News reported on the fund in April, and Dr. Anthony J. Billitier IV, the county health commissioner, sent a letter to suburban governments on Aug. 11 informing them of the availability of the rat-control money.

Recipients "have to show a willingness to tackle the problem" by, if necessary, strengthening their codes, said Loomis.

The City of Tonawanda and Kenmore have applied for a share of the fund, and Cansdale informed Collins of his intention to apply for rat-control funding, Loomis said.

As of last week, none of the $70,000 has been spent, he said.

In the county's place, suburban towns and villages have been left on their own.

Some have turned to outside contractors, as in the case of Amherst's hiring of Orkin.

Cheektowaga has one town employee certified to lay rat poison, but wants to get two more trained if funding can be found, said Highway Superintendent Mark Wegner.

"We've only been out twice so far" this summer, Wegner said.

The town used to hire an exterminator to deal with rats, but the Town Board disbanded the program in 2009 for financial reasons, Kensy said.

Now, when people call, town employees walk them through the reasons they found a rat in their yard and their options.

"Either you bait -- you buy the bait yourself -- or hire an exterminator," Kensy said. His Neighborhood Preservation Office has received an average of half a dozen complaints per week this summer.

West Seneca had received 10 rat complaints, at most, this summer. "We usually have them call the county," said Highway Superintendent Matt English.

Kenmore, which received three rat complaints per day during the height of the July heat wave, doesn't have any employee certified to lay bait, officials told The News last month.

The Village of Lancaster hasn't had a certified rat-control employee on the job since spring 2010, when Daniel E. Rinow moved on to become acting village justice, Cansdale said.

"We were very aggressive initially, but since then we haven't replaced him," the mayor said.

The village plans to hire a rodent-control contractor by next month, Cansdale said, and hopes to receive county funding for an informational mailing and poison-laying certification for one employee.

"This is extremely urgent, because I've seen a rat in my backyard," said Cansdale, who believes the rodent was drawn in by his wife's bird feeder, which they have since removed.

Falling seeds from bird feeders, dog feces left in yards, unsealed garbage cans and uncovered compost piles all provide feasts for rats, local officials said.

And children's swimming pools left filled with water can provide liquid refreshment.

The officials said even if they did have the budget and staff to respond to rat complaints, the problem won't get better if residents don't do their part.

"Rats tend to go where the food is," said George Pease, code enforcement officer for the town and village of Lancaster.