Erie City Councilman Ian Murray brought an idea and a threat to the Erie City Water Authority’s boardroom Thursday.
Neither could convince the Water Authority to stop plans to fluoridate the metropolitan area’s water supply.
Murray suggested replacing fluoridation with a program that would promote better dental care throughout the region. If not, Murray said, City Council will do whatever it can to stop fluoridation.
“For some reason I can’t understand, you’ve put fluoride on your backs and your backs alone,” Murray told the authority at its regular monthly meeting. About 75 people, most of them opponents of fluoridation, also attended.
“Let me give you the best advice I can give you,” Murray said. “Cut your losses.”
Despite vocal opposition from many citizens, the Water Authority plans to start adding fluoride to the water system in November. The authority is spending $575,000 on fluoridation, including planning and facilities, according to authority spokesman Bill Brown.
Brown said the authority has spent a total of $90,858 on fluoridation so far, including design, engineering, construction and equipment costs.
But Murray suggested that the authority “scrap” its fluoridation plan and instead spend some of that $575,000 to create what Murray called “a dental trust fund.” That fund would help provide improved dental education and care to local residents, especially children, Murray said.
Khalil Rabat, chairman of the Water Authority’s board, said nothing Murray said Thursday will change the authority’s fluoridation plans.
“We’re going forward,” Rabat said. “We’re thinking about our overall system and the population it serves. City Council should stick to trying to resolve city issues, and not try to micromanage this authority.”
The plan is Murray’s idea, and the Water Authority took no action on it. Murray offered it as a suggestion.
The Water Authority’s board did vote on a request by member Dick Wasielewski to delay construction of fluoridation facilities at the Chestnut Street pump station, but it was defeated.
Murray said Thursday that he has not discussed his idea with other potential partners, like local schools or social service agencies. But he thinks it is a good plan that could benefit local residents — and take some public heat off the Water Authority.
Murray told the board that City Council “has lost its patience” with the Water Authority regarding fluoride. Council on Wednesday night gave preliminary approval to an ordinance that would prohibit the Water Authority from adding any chemicals, including fluoride, to the city’s water supply unless they meet certain criteria.
Three members of council, including Murray, also said Wednesday they would support a vote to disband the Water Authority if the authority fluoridates local drinking water. Murray told the board that City Council “is prepared to do whatever it takes to stop fluoride,” drawing loud applause from the partisan audience.
James J. Rudy, the authority’s chief operating officer, said he was not worried about council’s comments or “the opinion of a small minority of our customers” regarding fluoride.
Rudy said the Water Authority’s lease agreement with the city — renewed last year — stipulates the contract can be terminated and the authority disbanded if the authority defaults on its $168,048 monthly lease payments. “Other than that, there’s no other termination clauses in there that I know of,” Rudy said.
Rudy also pointed out that, under the state’s Municipal Authorities Act, any dissolution of the Water Authority means the city would have to assume the Water Authority’s debts, which total more than $110 million.
Chuck Herron, the city’s director of finance, said it could take as long as two years to determine whether the city could afford such a move.
“Think about how long it took to create the Water Authority. What was it, two years?” Herron said. “I don’t even want to speculate about what that kind of debt or trying to disband the authority would do to the city right now.”
At Wednesday’s City Council meeting, Murray, Council President James N. Thompson and Councilman Mario Bagnoni all said they would not disband the authority so the city could run the water system again.
The three said that, instead, council could vote to disband and immediately follow that vote with one that would reconstitute a new Water Authority with different board members. The authority’s nine board members are appointed by City Council.
But Rudy said he doubts that move would pass legal muster.
“To say they’ll disband the authority and put in a new authority, that would be circumventing state law, in my opinion,” Rudy said.
Told of the potential financial ramifications of disbanding the authority, Murray acknowledged the move could hurt the city.
“OK, maybe we can’t afford to do that,” Murray said. “But we can send a message to the Water Authority with our actions and what we said (Wednesday night).
“If they’re serious about helping improve the community they serve, as they say they’re doing with fluoridation, then why not put the money into the (dental) trust fund,” Murray said.
“Why not do something that can provide better dental care to a wider variety of our citizens?” Murray asked.
Asked about Murray’s dental trust fund plan, Rudy said: “I’m following the direction and recommendations of my board. And their decision is to move on and fluoridate the water.”
Mayor Rick Filippi has veto power if and when Erie City Council votes to disband the Erie City Water Authority.
He said he hopes he doesn’t have to use it.
Filippi would not say whether he would veto such a vote. “If it comes to that, I have options … and that is one of them,” Filippi said.
But he did say the fluoridation controversy, and council’s threats to dissolve the authority, are examples of why the city should stay out of the authority’s daily operations and decisions.
“The intention of the Water Authority was to keep politics out of the operations of the water system, so we can deliver first-class water at a very reasonable cost,” Filippi said.
“The disheartening part of this is we have so many important issues on our agenda, and we’re still talking about fluoridating water,” Filippi said. “This is a debate for 50 years ago, not now. Deciding something that will help our children’s dental care should have been done a long time ago.”
Under the state’s Third Class City Code, mayors can veto majority decisions of a municipal council. It then takes a two-thirds majority vote to override it.
That means five of Erie City Council’s seven members would have to vote yes to overturn Filippi’s veto. City Council President James N. Thompson and Councilmen Ian Murray and Mario Bagnoni said Wednesday they would support a vote to disband the Water Authority.
Their comments came after City Council gave preliminary approval to an ordinance that would prohibit the Water Authority from adding any chemicals, including fluoride, to the city’s water supply unless they meet certain criteria.
Filippi said he does not plan to sign the ordinance City Council passed Wednesday, if that ordinance gets final approval from the panel. The ordinance can still become law, even without Filippi’s signature.
“We’ve already received legal opinions from our solicitor that it’s probably illegal and without any force,” Filippi said of the ordinance. “I don’t think it would be responsible for me to sign an ordinance our lawyers are telling me is meritless.”
Filippi said he does not think City Council has legal grounds to abolish the Water Authority. The authority is current on its $169,046 monthly lease payments, both Filippi and city Finance Director Chuck Herron said.
The city has an agreement to lease the waterworks to the authority until 2030, with an option to renew until 2040, Filippi said.
Filippi said there is no evidence the authority has acted in a manner that creates a reason to disband it.
Filippi, who is a lawyer, also said he believes dissolving the authority would legally bind the city to the Water Authority’s current debt —- which authority Chief Operating Officer James J. Rudy identified as more than $110 million.
“Unfortunately, democracy is not always pleasant,” Filippi said, referring to the fluoridation flap. “That’s our system of government, and that’s just something you have to deal with.
“But one thing does irk me,” Filippi said. “If some of us in government spent one-tenth of this energy being devoted to fluoridation on economic development, the city of Erie would be booming right now.”