A contingent of dentists and public-health professionals has convinced the DeLand City Commission it wasn’t a good idea to save money by canceling fluoridation of city water.
Two months ago, to balance the water-department budget, DeLand officials stopped adding fluoride to city water. They stopped buying the chemical, and didn’t replace the laboratory technician who did 20 daily tests required for fluoridation.
Those steps would have saved DeLand about $33,000 for the remainder of this fiscal year, and almost $80,000 next year.
But the dentists and others who spoke at the May 4 City Commission meeting said the cost to residents would be even higher, in terms of dental bills and health problems associated with tooth problems.
Most leading health professionals believe fluoride strengthens teeth and prevents tooth decay. The practice of water fluoridation has the endorsement of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Florida Department of Health, for example.
Others, however, especially some practitioners of alternative health care, note fluoride is a toxic chemical, and disagree with the practice of adding it to public water supplies.
DeLand is the only city in West Volusia that fluoridates its water. The decision to do so was made in 1995 after months of energetic debate between fluoride proponents and detractors.
Finally, the city conducted a straw poll by including surveys in water bills, and a majority of respondents endorsed fluoridation. After seeing those results, the City Commission authorized the expenditures necessary to get the program up and running.
Then came the economic contraction of the past year or so. DeLand is having trouble balancing its water-department budget because of two factors: one, a new pricing structure designed to encourage conservation; and, two, reduced sales of water and sewer services.
The city is selling less water and sewer services, Public Services Director Keith Riger said, because many houses are empty and in foreclosure and, also, because residents, in general, are conserving to save money.
In his report to the City Commission, Utilities Director Jim Ailes said it would be very challenging to restart fluoridation.
“Please note that I just recently had to find, with the help of Finance, a large sum of money to balance the shortfall projected in the budget. The proposed budget is in bad shape, also, and this money will be hard to find,” Ailes wrote.
City Manager Michael Pleus suggested the City Commission not reinstate fluoridation until a study of the city’s water and sewer rates can be completed. The study will probably recommend higher prices, but they would not be put into effect until the beginning of 2010, Pleus said.
Pleus said he approves of fluoridation, and was simply trying to balance income with expenses when he suggested the program be canceled.
“I looked at this program as one that was not necessarily, absolutely, mission-critical,” the manager told commissioners.
The dentists disagreed.
Dentists, orthodontists, nurses, hygienists and even former state Rep. Joyce Cusack, a retired public-health nurse, showed up in force to argue that fluoride is mission-critical for the citizenry’s health.
They showed a horrifying photo of a young woman’s mouth full of caries, and threatened that people can die from poor dental health. They said DeLand had showed leadership and was making dental-health progress, but was in danger of backsliding if fluoridation wasn’t restored.
“Let’s cut this budget where we have to cut it, but let’s not cut it on the backs of children and their dental hygiene,” Cusack urged commissioners.
The five commissioners were unanimous in their surrender. They asked City Manager Pleus to bring back a plan for restoring the fluoride program.
Mayor Bob Apgar, however, told the dentists their job isn’t finished.
In about five years, Apgar pointed out, plans call for the water systems of West Volusia’s cities to be interconnected, as Central Florida struggles to find ways to supply a growing populace with water.
If DeLand is the only city adding fluoride to its water, that could be a problem when the city’s water is mixed with other cities’ supplies, Apgar noted.
“I think it’s incumbent on the dental community to be talking to all of West Volusia,” Apgar said.