Big bucks and reluctant ratepayers mean mayors are lukewarm about the Health Ministry’s water-supply directive
West Coast councils say ratepayers will be facing yet another cost they can’t afford if they’re forced to fluoridate their public water supplies.
The power to direct fluoridation now rests with the Director General of Health after a 2021 law change and 14 councils have been ordered to add the chemical to their drinking water.
On the West Coast, where no public water supplies are fluoridated, the Ministry of Health has asked the three district councils to work out what it would cost to introduce it.
Buller Mayor Jamie Cleine says the projected costs of adding fluoride to tap water have soared by 23 percent in the past 12 months because of inflation.
In a letter to the ministry, his council warns it has no budget for fluoridation because there’s been no community consultation on the subject.
“The costs are all very high – we’d be looking at a significant rate rise if the ratepayers had to fund it,” Cleine says.
The council’s revised capital costs for fluoridation over two years for Westport (population 4974) and Reefton (population 951) would be $250,000 apiece, with further costs of $466,000 and $368,000 respectively.
Ongoing maintenance and operational costs would be $21,678 for Westport and $12,485 for Reefton, the council estimates.
“We wanted to highlight some key issues like the increased overall cost of implementation, monitoring and management and the fact that fluoridation is not included in our long-term plan, which raises the question how it will be funded,” the council has told the ministry.
“Also, we wanted to emphasise that the community has not been consulted on this issue and there are differing views within our communities regarding fluoridation, both for and against.”
Cleine says instead of councils having to deal with the issue, fluoridation would be better handed over to the new regional water entities to be set up under the Three Waters reforms.
“A standardised approach would be more practical – it doesn’t make sense for all these little councils to be looking for separate engineering solutions.”
In its letter to the ministry the council says it’s aware that adding fluoride to the water supply can be a controversial issue and there are differing views on the practice.
“With this letter we wanted to bring our local voice and knowledge into the discussion,” the council says.
Pity the poor ratepayer
Grey District Mayor Tania Gibson and Westland Mayor Helen Lash say their councils are also concerned about ongoing costs likely to land on ratepayers if they’re ordered to fluoridate.
“We have no budget for this either. Twelve months ago we estimated the cost at about $600,000. Now it’ll be more like $725,000 minimum and bear in mind that every $200,000 represents a 1 percent rate increase,” Gibson says.
Without full government funding, the district cannot afford fluoridation, she says.
“Our people are struggling as it is and we’re dreading the impact of inflation on rate demands.”
Lash says having to figure out the practicalities and costs of fluoridation has heaped more work on staff already snowed-under with multiple government requests for information about their water assets.
“Our people are being bombarded with these demands from Wellington because of Three Waters and it’s taking them away from their essential jobs; it’s such a lot of hard work and I don’t think the government’s really thought all this through.”
Manat? Hauora-Ministry of Health says it intends to fund the capital costs of the 14 local authorities that were ordered to fluoridate last July, and has invited them to apply for money from a fund of $11.3 million.
“Funding applications are now going through a review process and … consideration by an independent engineer … final costs are yet to be confirmed.”
More councils being eyed
The bill could go considerably higher: the ministry’s now looking at the costs and benefits of directing another 27 councils to introduce fluoridation, it says.
“The Director General is required to consider whether the benefits of adding fluoride to drinking water outweigh the costs, taking into account the oral health of the community as well as the financial costs of ongoing management and monitoring.”
Whether that means considering the demographics of towns such as Reefton, where the population is heavily skewed to older age groups and denture-wearers, is unclear.
The ministry says it’s aware of the workload councils are labouring under.
“Manat? Hauora is mindful of current pressures across the water services and broader local government sectors … in light of this, if directions to fluoridate are issued to any further local authorities, they will have compliance dates set for after July 2024 when the new water services entities are due to be established.”
And it confirms it won’t be picking up the tab for ongoing costs.
“Operational costs for fluoridation of drinking water supplies are required to be met by the drinking water suppliers,” the ministry says.
Gibson says her council resolved to say “no thanks” to fluoridation but in reality has no choice.
“I don’t think it should be up to the council or the government – it should be up to our community to decide. But we have no say now and we’re expected to foot the bill.”
*Original full-text article online at: https://www.newsroom.co.nz/west-coast-councils-baulk-at-fluoride-cost