LAYTON — Fluoridating Davis County’s water will cost at least twice as much as voters were told when they approved fluoridation in 2000.
And that prospect has elected leaders of one city — Layton — livid.
In a scathing letter to the Davis County Commission and Health Department last week, Mayor Jerry Stevenson accused former health officials of deliberately low-balling the costs cities would end up paying to fluoridate.
“We’re mad. This is ridiculous,” Stevenson said in an interview. “I’ve been an elected official for a lot of years, and this has been as big a boondoggle as I’ve ever touched.”
Davis County’s Health Department had estimated Layton (population 59,000) would need to spend less than $60,000 to fluoridate its well water, or less than $1 per person per year. It turns out the city figures it will cost closer to $1 million, and Stevenson predicts water rates will jump by $21 per household per year.
Layton is the only city now in violation of Davis County’s order to fluoridate. The city has said it will fluoridate by February, but Health Department director Lewis Garrett says he will insist on an earlier date in upcoming negotiations.
Fluoridated water has been flowing from Centerville south since May and will be in northern Davis County’s water supply by next month. Outside of Layton, all Davis County cities — except Woods Cross, which is opting out after residents rejected fluoridation — are expected to be fully fluoridated by July.
As a public-health advocate, the Health Department had persuaded the Davis County Commission to place fluoridation on the 2000 ballot. In Salt Lake County, fluoridation passed handily after advocates got it on the ballot through an initiative petition.
Davis County voters approved fluoridation 52 percent to 48 percent. Nearly 60 percent of Salt Lake County voters signed off on it.
Health professionals long have held that water fluoridation is the most efficient way to reach all children with the cavity-fighting substance.
Stevenson and fluoride foes, however, allege the Davis Health Department crossed the line with deliberate misstatements about costs so that voters would approve fluoride. And they maintain that public money was improperly spent on pro-fluoride activities.
Richard Harvey, then-interim director of the Health Department, denies deliberately misleading voters or cities.
“We weren’t trying to low-ball it,” Harvey said. “There was no effort at all to do anything more than come up with the best, most accurate costs we could come up with at the time.”
Harvey believes costs are higher because the Weber Basin Water Conservancy District had to make significant system changes to fluoridate Davis County’s supply while keeping Weber County’s unfluoridated. Another factor, he says, is that cities are building more expensive, more sophisticated systems than his figures predicted.
Weber Basin supplies about half the water in Davis County. The rest comes from 40 city-owned wells throughout the county. Some cities, such as Kaysville and Syracuse, depend entirely on Weber Basin for water.
Garrett, who replaced Harvey as Health Department director in 2001, says fluoridation probably will end up costing Davis County residents nearly $5 per person per year.
That’s more than double $2 the Health Department had touted during much of the campaign and higher than the $1.38 average predicted by Harvey in ads that appeared days before the 2000 election.
But Garrett contends it is a worthwhile investment. “It still represents a terrific bargain. Filling one cavity costs almost $100. The benefit still outweighs the cost.”
He defends the Health Department’s earlier estimates as good-faith predictions. Harvey had relied on costs experienced by Brigham City and Hill Air Force Base, where water has been fluoridated for decades, and on projections from Weber Basin in mid-2000.
Opponents have said the Health Department ignored Weber Basin’s warnings that without Weber County also fluoridating — a fact not known until six weeks before the election — the costs would rise significantly.
Garrett says the Davis health board knew it would be “trickier and more expensive,” but was not told until last summer that costs would be several times higher than early estimates. The higher price tag became clear only after Weber Basin water-pressure tests showed the district would have to install fluoridation equipment on eight water lines along the Weber-Davis border, rather than at one treatment plant, he says.
Tage Flint, Weber Basin’s general manager, acknowledges there is no paper trail showing the Health Department was warned of higher costs before the vote. “It gets fuzzy there,” he said. “We knew we were going to have to redo [estimates]. We just didn’t have time before the election hit.”
As it turns out, Weber Basin is spending $1.6 million on equipment and construction, far more than the $278,000 cited by district engineer Scott Paxman days before the vote.
Cities other than Layton also have encountered higher costs than the Health Department predicted, but say they were not surprised. They assumed the figures were low.
Randy Randall, Centerville’s public works director, had predicted before the election that the city would need $31 more per year from each household to finance fluoridation.
His estimate ended up high while the Health Department’s estimate of $8.76 per year was low. Last summer, Centerville residents began paying $2.30 more per month ($27.60 per year) to pay for fluoridation, Randall says.
Randall does not believe the Health Department was “devious or underhanded,” but he does recall that cities were not consulted.
David Wilding, waterworks superintendent for Bountiful, says that with three wells yet to be completely fluoridated, the city’s estimated price tag of less than $200,000 appears accurate. Residents there have been paying $1 more per month for better than a year to cover fluoridation costs.
The Health Department had predicted Bountiful would need less than $4 more per year from each household.
Wilding says the Health Department did not have a good handle on costs because it did not consult the cities. “The county didn’t get all the facts when they were putting it together. I think there were people who were pro-fluoride who didn’t let the facts stand in the way of promoting it.”
Stevenson regrets that he and other mayors did not pull together their cities’ estimates and publicize them for voters before the election. “I wish I had gotten more involved in this. I feel derelict in what I did in this.”
David K. Hansen, a Kaysville resident who has spearheaded a push to get a re-vote on fluoride, says he will ask a higher court to allow a special election this year.
As soon as an attorney-fees issue is settled, Hansen intends to appeal a 2nd District ruling that went against his petition drive to put fluoride on last fall’s ballot.
If that does not work, fluoride probably will be on Davis County’s ballot in 2004 — either as a result of another petition drive or direct placement by county commissioners.