The city aldermen want to know how much Rutlanders value their teeth.
The aldermen’s Public Works Committee decided Monday they want to hear next week what city residents think about cutting fluoride out of their diet.
For 26 years, the city has added fluoride to its water supply to help reduce tooth decay.
But faced with rising chemical expenses at the city’s water filtration plant, Mayor Christopher Louras asked the board if they would back up his inclination to cut the $14,000 it would cost to buy fluoride for 2009. The mayor said he decided adding fluoride to the water supply wasn’t worth the expense when the cost of fluoride increased $6,000 this year.
“For me, it’s gotten to the point where the costs outweigh the benefit,” Louras told members of the committee on Monday. “I’m wondering if the rest of the board is at that point where we turn off the spigot.”
By unanimous vote, the five-member committee told the mayor he should pay for the fluoride this year.
But in a follow-up 3-to-2 vote, the committee recommended that the full board put the fluoride question on the city ballot for the voters to decide. Aldermen Roy Thomas, William Notte and Paul Barbagallo represented the “yes” votes while Alderman David Dress and committee Chairman Henry Heck voted “no.”
The fluoride question is more nuanced than it seems.
Just getting the chemical into the water supply took two decades and three citywide votes before it was approved in 1982.
Since its introduction, its impact on dental hygiene has been astounding, according to retired Rutland dentist Edward Reiman — who said he began pushing for the city to add fluoride to its water supply during the 1950s.
“If you go into any dentist’s office and ask if a person lived in a community where fluoride is added to the water, that dentist, without looking at the patient’s name or address, would immediately know the answer just by looking in their mouth,” Reiman said.
In the years prior to the introduction of fluoride, Reiman said it wasn’t uncommon for dentists to pull teeth from toddlers. With the introduction of the chemical, which is absorbed by drinking or cooking with city water, there are city residents in their 20s who have never had a cavity, he contended.
But while fluoride may be preventing holes in teeth, the city’s water treatment plant manager told the aldermen the corrosive chemical has eaten through multiple storage tanks and done damage to pumps and electrical systems.
“It’s some corrosive stuff,” water treatment plant director Michael Garofano said.
The aldermen were left to weigh which was more important in the scheme of things — dental hygiene or a corrosive chemical that almost doubled in price in one year.
In the end, they decided that they shouldn’t make a decision on an issue originally pushed forward by the voters.
But there were aldermen present during the debate who didn’t agree with that conclusion.
“We could get into the old adage about ‘Why should I pay for the schools if I have no kids in them,'” Alderwoman Sharon Davis said. “Except we’ll hear ‘Why should I pay for fluoride if I don’t have a lot of kids who would have expensive dental bills.'”
“When you put something before the voters, there’s a fine line you begin to cross,” she said.
Board President David Allaire said he didn’t want to set a precedent by which the board turned to the voters every time a relatively small city expense was put on the chopping block.
“I think the voters expect us to make those decisions,” he said.
But Notte said the fluoride expense wasn’t like the rest.
“I would say there are not many $14,000 items with this political history,” he said