Fluoridation is in.
The Erie City Water Authority voted Thursday to start plans to fluoridate the metropolitan Erie water supply, despite moves this week by both Erie City Council and Erie County Council to let voters decide the issue.
The authority voted 7-2 in favor of member Thomas C. Hoffman’s motion to add fluoride to customers’ drinking water. Hoffman made the motion after listening to several citizens explain why they believed fluoridated drinking water would benefit the community. The speakers included local dentists; Erie City Councilman Rick Filippi, who is also the Democratic Party mayoral candidate; and the co-chairman of a local pro-fluoridation group.
"I believe this is an important health issue," Filippi told the authority. "I support fluoridation…and I would hope you give it your best attention and study."
Bill Brown, the authority’s director of human resources and public information, said the vote means the authority will now begin plans to add fluoride, a naturally occurring substance believed to prevent tooth decay, to its customers’ water. The Water Authority supplies water to more than 52,000 homes and businesses in Erie and parts or all six suburban municipalities.
The authority estimates start-up costs to fluoridate the water will be $500,000, Brown said. "We will put a plan together, and I think our customers can expect fluoridation by this time next year," Brown said.
Fluoridation opponents claim it causes health problems, although public health officials and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention rebut those claims, calling fluoride safe and beneficial.
Brown ensured the public that the Water Authority will add fluoride with safety in mind.
"We will build the system, we’ll build it right, and the fluoride will be added in a safe, approved manner," Brown said. "This will be done in the way that the American Waterworks Association requires."
Hoffman’s motion was a surprise move. At the start of Thursday afternoon’s meeting, authority Chairman Khalil Rabat said the body had no plans to take action on the fluoride issue.
Later, Hoffman said he made the motion "because I didn’t see any need to procrastinate any further.
"It’s been discussed and debated over and over again," Hoffman said. "But the fact is I did this for good health reasons. The facts say this is good for people."
Authority members Rabat, Dorothy Smith, Robert Jandt, Daniel Bensur, George Willis and Stanley Prazer voted for Hoffman’s motion. Members Ray Romanski and Richard Wasielewski voted against it.
Before the vote, Romanski made an unsuccessful motion to table Hoffman’s request, but it was defeated by a 6-3 vote. Romanski said the authority should study fluoridation further before making a decision.
Prazer, who later voted in favor of fluoridation, and Wasielewski supported Romanski’s motion, with the remaining members opposing it.
William G. Sesler, an Erie lawyer, former state senator and cochairman of Citizens for Better Dental Health, said he was happy to see Hoffman and other authority members take a stand. "They did a remarkable thing," Sesler said. "They walked the walk, instead of talking the talk. We are very happy. This is the result of two years of work by our group.
"This is going to help disadvantaged kids who don’t get proper dental care," Sesler continued. "It’s important and it will work in Erie."
On Wednesday night, Erie City Council voted to ask the county’s Board of Elections to place the issue on the Nov 6 ballot. On Tuesday night, Erie County Council passed a similar resolution.
The county has said it is researching whether the referendum is legal, would be binding or nonbinding, and whether there is still time to put such a question on the ballot.
The issue of a referendum was brought up again at Thursday’s Water Authority meeting. The authority’s solicitor, Stephen D. Flaherty, reminded members before they voted that, as an independent authority, even a binding resolution could not dictate what action they eventually took on fluoridation.
Referring to the two resolutions passed by city and county councils, Flaherty said: "All they can do is ask you to act. They cannot compel you to act."
County Councilman Fiore Leone, who sponsored the resolution passed Tuesday night, said he was "highly disappointed" that the authority voted for fluoridation without waiting for the outcome of a referendum. Pointing to the Water Authority’s action, he asked, "Are they afraid the community would vote against it?"
"I still feel, as I felt before, that I think it’s too big an issue for nine people on the Water Authority to make," Leone said.
Leone said water users should have the right to make that decision through a ballot question. "I don’t care whether they fluoridate or they don’t fluoridate," he said. "It should be a countywide ballot. I might still push it on the ballot just to see what the community feels about it."
City Council President Mario Bagnoni, an opponent of fluoridation, said Thursday he was disappointed with the Water Authority’s action. "They’re the ones who are going to have to live with it, that’s all," Bagnoni said.
"It should have been put up to the people," Bagnoni said. "It affects not only the citizens of Erie, but the citizens of other communities where our water goes.
"The Water Authority went ahead and did that, but I’m not surprised. They’re arrogant," Bagnoni said. "They’re autonomous and think they can do as they see fit. But it won’t surprise me to see a rate increase for customers later because of this. No matter what the Water Authority says."