Don’t expect the Wichita City Council to jump into the fluoride debate soon.
There’s a case of fluoride fatigue developing at City Hall, where council members are immersed in a difficult budget summer and don’t welcome the distraction of a public debate over adding a costly chemical to the city’s water, they say.
It’s a case of too much too soon from advocates and opponents, council members say.
“I think that right now, today, with this council we are going to put this on the back burner and take it up when it’s more appropriate,” council member Jeff Longwell said. “Let us get through budget time, and we’ll get to it. It’s not an issue we’re taking up today.”
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“The city budget is all of our predominant concern at this point,” council member Michael O’Donnell said. “Doesn’t mean I don’t want to discuss it. I’m more than happy to discuss it at some point because essentially forcing a medication upon people affects every single one of us.”
“I haven’t focused on it, haven’t paid much attention,” Mayor Carl Brewer said. “I don’t think it’s that big on anyone’s radar at this point. I’m just hearing what people have to say.”
One council member, Vice Mayor Janet Miller, supports fluoridation and is ready to discuss it from the council bench.
“It’s one of the top 10 public health achievements of the 20th century, and Wichita is one of the remaining few large cities in the country that has not fluoridated its water supply,” she said. “We have a very high rate of dental decay, and there’s definitely a relationship.”
Besieged with lobbying e-mails from across the state, country and world, frustration is growing among a council that’s spent the summer searching for ways to balance tight 2013 and 2014 budgets.
“Information is coming at us from all over the world,” council member Pete Meitzner said. “I don’t know that anybody on the council wants to push this thing forward for immediate action, but my take is there’s enough citizen discussion to bring it to the agenda at some point.”
The fluoride debate has resurfaced at the worst time possible, council members said, but wasn’t unexpected. Council member Lavonta Williams said she needs to know more about fluoride before taking the issue on.
“It’s always an issue,” Brewer said. “Every election, fluoride always surfaces. Not one election does it not surface.”
“I even got it from my dentist,” Longwell said. “I went and got my teeth cleaned, and my dentist goes, ‘You know, Jeff. Fluoride isn’t bad.’
“I get that, and I’m not saying fluoride is right or wrong. What I’m saying is there are more important issues on our plate that we need to deal with.”
One big obstacle the pro-fluoride lobby faces is cost: Based on a perfunctory study, city officials estimate it would cost between $2 million and $3 million to start a water fluoride program without grant support. That’s money the city does not have, and won’t have any time soon in a largely flat local economy.
“Even if we wanted to do it, the dollar figure on startup and annual costs is scary,” Longwell said. “I’m not sure why anyone would think we’ve got an extra half-million to throw around, so let’s just jump into the fluoride business.
“I understand it’s an issue that’s important, but right now, we’ve got more on our plate than we need to handle and fluoride isn’t on it.”
Wichitans for Healthy Teeth has said that the group is pursuing grant money to offset the infrastructure costs of fluoridating Wichita’s water.
Williams says that cost remains a concern.
“You can look around every day and see cities in dire financial straits,” Williams said. “We’re certainly not out of this recession yet, and we don’t know for certain how we’d pay for this going forward. We have to remain cautious.”
Beyond that quick look, City Manager Robert Layton said council members have remained largely silent on the fluoride issue.
“From my standpoint, it’s what I said at the budget meeting with the DABs (district advisory boards),” Layton said. “This will be an interesting community debate, and I’m looking forward to following it and listening like everyone else.”