Some local water providers are aggravated over the health department’s latest fluoride proposal – and they got support Tuesday from the Pierce County Council.

The council unanimously approved a resolution opposing the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department’s new plan, which would force water providers that serve 5,000 or more people to choose between fluoridating water supplies or paying for oral health alternatives.

The move signifies widespread and solidifying opposition to the health department’s fluoridation plans, just a year after the state Supreme Court struck down an earlier proposal that was also opposed by local water providers.

The health board was scheduled to vote on fluoridation today, but delayed the proposal until June in light of the opposition.

The board wants time to consider and understand the “intent of the county,” said Kevin Phelps, Tacoma City Councilman and health board chairman.

But he doesn’t expect a change of heart. Most board members are unwavering in their support of the oral health program, he said, and want to address “the severe dental crises we have, especially in our most at-risk kids,” in low-income homes.

County and state dental associations back the health board’s efforts. The state association offered to defray the costs of fluoridation, Phelps said.

A half-dozen water providers and the health department seemed to reach consensus in February when they agreed to look at providing other oral health options instead of fluoridating water supplies. Those options included education, dental screenings and topical fluoride treatment for high-risk children.

Now, several water providers say the health board’s proposed mandate undermines local control, unfairly forces utilities to subsidize health care, and opens local utilities to more stringent requirements in the future. If the alternatives don’t work out, water providers don’t want to be stuck with a mandate to add fluoride to their supplies.

“This shouldn’t all be put on a private company that has no responsibility in public health care,” said Marc Marcantonio, general manager of Mountain View-Edgewood Water Co., in a telephone interview.

Representatives from Mountain View-Edgewood and Spanaway Water Co., as well as from the cities of Milton and Edgewood, all spoke against the health department’s plan at the County Council meeting Tuesday.

The mandate would effect all large providers that don’t already fluoridate their water, except the Lakewood Water District, which is a legal entity separate from municipal water systems, nonprofit, and private sector providers.

While the County Council and water providers support offering the oral health alternatives, they say the health department should pay for the program or seek grants or donations.

“We believe individual rate payers of utilities are not responsible for health care,” said County Councilman Roger Bush (R-Graham).

The council’s vote is nonbinding and cannot force the health board to approve or reject the fluoride proposal.
Marcantonio added that there’s a good chance the water providers will file a lawsuit if the health board approves the mandate, potentially revisiting a two-year court battle that ended last year.

The health board in 2002 adopted a resolution mandating that all local water providers with more than 5,000 customers add fluoride to drinking water.

A lawsuit was filed by a half-dozen water providers, which argued that it amounted to forced medication and that the cost of fluoridation was an illegal tax.

The state Supreme Court ruled that the health department had overstepped its authority, and some water suppliers planned to let their customers decide whether their water should be fluoridated.

County Councilman Dick Muri (R-Steilacoom), who also sits on the health board, said resentment against these kind of mandates is so high, many are calling to get rid of the board.

“Do we even really need a health board?” he asked. “We could dissolve the health board and make it a department of the county.”