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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane mayor, council president may strike deal on fluoride study

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward and the Spokane City Council have struck a new deal over studying a fluoride system for city water.   (Christopher Anderson)
Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward and the Spokane City Council have struck a new deal over studying a fluoride system for city water.  (Christopher Anderson)

After months of stalemate, the city is nearly ready to commission a study of fluoridating its water supply.

Spokane leaders have renegotiated the terms of the grant used to fund the analysis in order to assuage the concerns of Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward.

The Spokane City Council accepted a $4 million grant to study and implement a fluoridation system from The Arcora Foundation last September, but it came with stipulations that have caused the administration to balk.

The mayor worried the city would end up footing the bill, and that the study would lead to a hasty decision to fluoridate without adequate public input.

Under the previous agreement, if the city studied fluoridation but ultimately decided not to implement such a system, it would have to pay the money back to the foundation. Now, the terms are being tweaked to ensure that the city can spend $600,000 to study – and possibly decline – fluoridation without having to repay the Arcora Foundation.

On the same yet-to-be-scheduled night it authorizes the city to issue a request for proposals to begin the feasibility study, the council will also vote on a resolution promising Woodward that it will not jump to fluoridate without first engaging the public, according to Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs, who outlined the verbal agreement for The Spokesman-Review on Friday.

The changes are enough to satisfy Woodward, who until now had held up the study.

“The mayor would like to see a full discussion at the community level with that information so we’re transparent,” Marlene Feist, the city’s public works director, said on Friday.

The Arcora Foundation is the nonprofit philanthropic arm of insurance company Delta Dental. It contributed $3 million toward the effort, with the remaining $1 million raised by the nonprofit Better Health Together.

Vanetta Abdellatif, president and CEO of The Arcora Foundation, wrote in an email to The Spokesman-Review that it was willing to relax the terms of its original grant “to help provide greater fiscal certainty as the city explores the feasibility of having Spokane residents join more than 73% of the US population who have access to fluoridated drinking water.”

Spokane is the largest city in Washington to not add fluoride to its water, which dental health organizations and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say can reduce tooth decay and address equity gaps in dental health. The city has periodically debated whether to add the mineral to its water supply but never taken the leap.

Most recently, in 2000, voters narrowly advised against fluoridation. The proposal to fluoridate the city’s water supply again quickly sparked opposition last year, as many expressed doubts about the safety of fluoride despite assurances from health agencies and organizations.

In 2020, amid the pandemic, some members of the City Council initially appeared poised to argue that rampant tooth decay and a lack of fluoride amounted to a public health emergency that should be immediately remedied without a public advisory vote.

The most fervent fluoride-supporting city council members backed off on ordering fluoride immediately be added to the city’s water supply. Instead, they agreed to accept the grant and launch a study of a fluoridation system.

Fluoridate supporters and opponents agree that adding the mineral to Spokane’s water supply would not be simple. Though many cities treat their water at a single source, Spokane has seven separate wells and an eighth coming soon. That means each well would have to be outfitted with the equipment to add fluoride.

The feasibility study and 25% design of the system that’s part of the agreement would help illuminate just how costly it might be to maintain a fluoridation system, both upfront and on an annual basis.

“I don’t think anyone thinks that it’s not doable, but that’s where the cost might be an issue,” Beggs said.

The Arcora Foundation and local funders of the effort would look to raise additional money if the buildout costs exceed $4 million, Abdellatif said.

Safe Water Spokane, a group formed last year to resist fluoridation, has argued that fluoridation is a waste of taxpayer money.

“Ninety-nine percent of the water isn’t even ingested, but literally goes down the drain through toilets, showers, car washes and other uses,” Jeff Irish, the group’s chair, said in a statement last December.

On Friday, Irish argued in a statement to The Spokesman-Review that the issue was about more than “dollars and cents.”

“The overwhelming weight of scientific evidence has shown that fluoridated water diminishes IQ and increases ADHD rates,” wrote Irish, contradicting the position of groups like the American Dental Association. “Children and their parents will pay for that the rest of their lives. Safe Water Spokane stands firm: this should be stopped now.”

It will likely take more than a year before the analysis is complete and the public review process begins, city leaders agree. City staff are already preparing a request for proposals and the study should go out to bid this spring.

Some city leaders, including Woodward, have voiced discomfort with endorsing fluoridation without first putting the matter to a public vote. The agreement outlined between the City Council and Woodward’s administration still does not settle the issue.

“It saves that question for another day after we have the data,” Beggs said.

Still, the agreement outlined by city officials is a step forward in at least gathering information about fluoridation, both for those in favor and opposed to it, after months of uncertainty. Weeks after the council approved the grant, a study had yet to commence and Woodward signaled her trepidation in a Dec. 2 letter.

“As I expressed earlier this fall, I continue to advocate for a thoughtful approach to evaluating the capital needs and cost of adding fluoride to the city’s water supply,” Woodward wrote.

“I remain concerned that any grant money spent on evaluating a fluoridation system would have to be repaid if we ultimately decide not to install a fluoridation system.”

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