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Pinellas County's fluoridation issue will not go to referendum

CLEARWATER — There will be no Pinellas County referendum next year asking voters whether they support adding fluoride to drinking water.

Nor a dental care van going to schools to treat youngsters from poor neighborhoods.

And for the third time this year, the County Commission also voted Tuesday night to cease fluoridation on Dec. 31.

"It is absolutely amazing to me that we are taking this huge step backwards," said Commissioner Susan Latvala.

Commissioners had asked staff and lawyers to draw up options for a referendum and to explore ideas for boosting dental care after they voted in October to halt the seven-year practice of adding fluoride to the drinking water. But no commissioner supported either idea enough to even call a vote.

At Latvala's request — and with pleadings from dentists — the board revisited its attention-getting fall votes to stop adding fluoride. No one changed their stance.

Latvala, Karen Seel and Ken Welch voted for adding fluoride. Commissioners Nancy Bostock, Neil Brickfield, John Morroni and Norm Roche again voted no.

Pinellas' action affects 700,000 residents who get county water. St. Petersburg, which fluoridates, is not affected.

Dentists and health care officials credit fluoridation for helping reduce cavities, but opponents complain fluoridation poses risks and forces people to drink medicated water. Most major health organizations endorse fluoridation to fight cavities.

County Attorney Jim Bennett drew up essentially two ballot options without offering a recommendation: a charter amendment with a countywide vote, or a non-binding straw poll for people on county drinking water.

Yet lukewarm support from local dentists, as well as some opponents, doomed its chances with commissioners.

"The 4-3 vote was the right vote. Nor do I think the referendum is a good idea," said Kurt Irmischer, president of Citizens for Safe Water in Pinellas, an opposition group.

But discussion of the dental van rekindled much of the emotion of the October debate among dentists and opponents, though in smaller numbers.

Roche questioned how a discussion on the van became a debate on fluoride again.

"I thought we were here to discuss this proposal, but that's not what I'm hearing," Roche said.

Fluoridation costs the county utility payers $205,000 a year. Dentists and public health officials say poor children are most at-risk for dental illness without fluoridation.

But the dental van idea fell flat because it would cost more than $530,000 and help only 5,000 kids.

"This is not even close to what I was thinking when I was part of … those voices who said let's look at what we can do to help bridge that gap for folks who disagree with that decision," Bostock said.

The removal of fluoride reverses a 6-1 vote in 2003 to begin adding fluoride in 2004. The same year, the Charter Review Commission rejected Citizens for Safe Water's request for a ballot measure on fluoride.

While Tuesday's decision settles the issue in the short term, Roche and other commissioners directed utility staff to leave fluoridation equipment in place — in case the topic comes up for debate again.

David DeCamp can be reached at ddecamp@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/decamptimes.

Pinellas County's fluoridation issue will not go to referendum 12/20/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 21, 2011 12:03am]
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