WAHOO – Residents of three Saunders County cities will be able to decide if they want to opt out of a state mandate.
Wahoo, Yutan and Ashland voters will be casting a vote if fluoride should be placed in their community’s drinking water.
In April, the Nebraska Legislature passed LB 245. This piece of legislation requires all cities with a population greater than 1,000 to add fluoride to their water supply by June 1, 2010.
Currently, Wahoo, Ashland and Yutan do not treat drinking water but would be required to do so in accordance with LB 245.
The legislature, however, did place an opt out provision into LB 245. Either by vote of city council or public petition, the question of fluoridation can be put to the vote of the people.
All three city councils in Saunders County voted to put the issue on the Nov. 4 ballot. According to the Nebraska State Board of Health, 61 of the 64 communities facing mandated fluoridation have the issue on the upcoming ballot.
The tricky thing, according to area officials, is making sure the public is aware of the wording on the ballot.
A “yes” vote is a vote to prohibit fluoride from the water system and a “no” vote would be a vote for fluoride in the water.
According to Wahoo City Administrator Melissa Harrell, the Wahoo City Council didn’t change the ballot question proposed by the Nebraska League of Municipalities, but they did try to make the yes and no clearer.
“We moved the sentences describing what a yes or no would mean directly behind the yes and behind the no on the same line,” Harrell said. “It originally came as a paragraph above the yes and no options.
“Our goal was not to change the question, but to make it as clear as possible.”
The Wahoo City Council added fluoridation to the ballot at its July meeting.
Wahoo councilman Jerry Johnson stated that the council wanted the voters to decide on the issue.
“The council has not taken a position on fluoridation either way,” Johnson said. “If the initiative does pass, we will look into ways to fund it and how water rates will be affected.”
According to Wahoo Utilities Manager Jim Gibney, the estimated cost for equipment to start fluoridating Wahoo’s water would be about $25,000. An annual cost for chemicals and labor is expected to be at least $7,000.
“The potential costs could be higher or lower,” Gibney said. “We just haven’t researched it too much.”
This is not the first time Wahoo residents have been asked to add fluoride to their drinking water.
In 1973, the legislature passed a similar law. According to the May 17, 1973 Wahoo Newspaper, LB449 passed during that legislative session required all cities and villages to fluoridate by January 1975, unless a majority of voters said no to it.
The question of fluoridation in Wahoo was placed on the Nov. 4, 1974 general election ballot. Fluoridation was soundly thumped by a vote of 990 against and 432 for.
A vote for or against fluoridation was also held on April 2, 1963. At that time, 800 people voted against it while only 129 voters were for it.
This will be the first time that Yutan and Ashland voters will say if they want fluoride in their drinking water.
According to Yutan city administrator Gary Duncan, the Yutan City Council placed the issue on a ballot because the state provided no funding for the fluoridation.
“It will probably initially cost the taxpayers in the neighborhood of $30,000,” Duncan said. “We have three wells in town it will cost between five and $10,000 per well at first.
“Also, fluoride is toxic. We will have to build a separate building just to store the chemical.”
He added that after the initial cost it will probably cost the city about $1,000 a year for chemicals.
When the Ashland City Council discussed the issue in July, City Administrator Jessica Preister said the city’s engineers estimated it would cost about $15,000 per well to install new equipment for fluoridation. Ashland has four wells. Three of the well houses would need to be renovated to build a storage area for the chemical, which could cost roughly $40,000 per well house.
Preister said Health and Human Services estimated the cost of installation to be $5,000 per well. They also estimated the cost of the chemical to be $1,800 a year.
Mayor Paul Lienke said costs would have to be recouped through water rates.
The city council opted to let the citizens vote on the issue, passing a resolution on July 17.
According to the United States Public Health Service, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Dental Association, the recommended optimum fluoride level in drinking water is about one milligram per liter.
Senators passed LB245 by a vote of 34-8. Governor Dave Heineman then vetoed the bill, saying that the voted required by the bill’s opt-out provision amounted to an unfounded mandate. However, lawmakers voted 31-4 to override the governor’s veto.
(Staff reporters Lisa Brichacek and Suzi Nelson contributed to this story.)