Meeting for the first time since Election Day, when Pinellas County voters ousted two Republican commissioners from office, the County Commission set about undoing the work of the old.
Next week, commissioners said, they want to reverse a policy decision made more than a year ago that ended the practice of adding fluoride to the county’s drinking water.
“When we come back here after Thanksgiving, we are prepared to take that vote and flip that switch,” said newly elected Commissioner Janet Long, who was sworn in Tuesday along with fellow Democrat Charlie Justice.
Long made the cavity-fighting agent such a central part of her campaign that she ordered blue and white decals in the shape of a molar that read “Pro Fluoride!” and pasted them on her campaign signs. Justice also ran on restoring fluoridation.
With a 4-3 vote in October 2011, the commission ended a yearslong practice of augmenting natural fluoride levels in the county’s water and left 700,000 residents — about 75 percent of the county — drinking water with less fluoride than federal health agencies recommend. It also set off a political firestorm. Dentists, orthodontists and hygienists, many of whom had no experience with politics, turned into activists, paying for roadside billboards and lecturing their patients.
Long and Justice signed up to oppose GOP commissioners who had voted against fluoride. By the end of the day Nov. 6, both the Democrats who won and the Republicans who were suddenly jobless pointed to fluoride as the source of their divergent fortunes.
Since then, the two remaining commissioners who opposed fluoridation, John Morroni and Norm Roche, have reversed their positions and promise to vote to add the chemical back. With their two votes, there is now unanimous support for the practice.
On Tuesday, commissioners set their meeting in one week as the date they’d vote to resume fluoridation.
Doing so won’t take much time, but will take some money.
Robert Powell, the county’s water director, said it would take three to five days after the vote to put the chemical back in the water. After the commission halted the practice last year, Pinellas gave its remaining fluoride supply to the city of Dunedin, which controls its own water and, like St. Petersburg, Gulfport and Belleair, has continued to add fluoride. Other cities, such as Pinellas Park and Tarpon Springs, have since voted to begin fluoridation.
Powell estimated that it would cost the county about $130,000 to buy the chemical, hydrofluosilicic acid, from its supplier, Dupont, and $30,000 more for operation and management costs related to reinstating the practice.
After a year, some of the equipment used for fluoridation has fallen into disrepair. Powell said the county will also have to pay about $25,000 to replace the computer system at the Keller Water Treatment Facility in Tarpon Springs. Between humid weather and frequent summer lightning storms, the system that records incoming levels of natural fluoride and dictates how much should be added is now inoperable, he said.
Next week, the commission will not only decide whether to restart fluoridation, but also whether to lower the amount of fluoride from 0.8 milligrams per liter of water, where it stood in 2011, to 0.7 milligrams, the level currently recommended by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
It was this new recommendation that brought the subject of fluoride to the commission a year ago, said Commissioner Karen Seel, who on Tuesday was elected the board’s next vice chairwoman. But the discussion quickly spiraled into a debate over the role of government in public health. Some of the four commissioners who voted against fluoride said they were concerned that the county was giving people unsafe levels; others said it should be left to individuals to decide if they want to ingest fluoride at all.
Although he has said he will support restarting fluoridation, Roche said Tuesday that he would prefer to put the issue to referendum and have voters weigh in.
“I don’t think we should be assuming the election of an individual mandates a specific particular position,” he said, referring to the election of pro-fluoride candidates Justice and Long. “The best way to learn whether our residents support fluoride is to ask them — ask them the question directly.”
“If that makes me a right-wing tea party extremist, then I’ll wear that, because it’s our public drinking water,” he said, taking a shot at his critics, who have characterized him as aligned with the most conservative and anti-government groups in the county’s political spectrum.
But the six other commissioners did not appear interested in putting fluoride to referendum.
“The science is crystal clear,” said Commissioner Ken Welch, who was voted as the board’s next chairman. “We’ve beat this thing to death,” he said.