An Open Letter to Council about a Potential Tax Increase

To all of the members of Wilmington City Council and Mayor Stanforth:

Thank you for hosting the public meeting on Thursday about Wilmington’s current financial situation. I believe that for many in Wilmington, the information presented by Service Director Brian Shidaker and Council President Randy Riley was valuable and informational. Finance Committee Chairman Mark McKay did an admirable job of allowing conversation between council members to flow without much interruption. Although the meeting was long, the discussion between council and among the members of the public who attended was good, and there were several issues brought to the table.

As it seems right now, Finance Committee seems to be leaning towards a recommendation to put a 0.5% earnings tax increase (likely temporary for five years). I believe that this is the best course of action in order to get something passed in fall election, and I hope that Finance Committee and Council work to bring this to the voters in this fall’s general election.

In my opinion, Council must consider the following issues:

  • How does Council assure the people of Wilmington that this money will be spent appropriately and prudently? In my opinion, Council must create a specific spending plan that shows how the money will be spent if the voters approve the tax increase. This plan should focus on the future of Wilmington, and how Council plans to make it a brighter one. I believe that it should include street repairs and property maintenance/building code enforcement specifically, as these are two items that many in Wilmington have expressed interest in.
  • Is a temporary tax the best way to go? I believe that it will be easier to pass, but I am not sure whether it is totally honest. Would the city be prepared to lose roughly $2 million from one year to the next in 5 years? It seems like we need significant monies to work to improve the city, and I am not sure if we can accomplish it all in 5 years. If the city can propose a spending plan that gets itself back to a level of services that people in Wilmington can agree with, I hope that Council will move forward with some considerations of putting a permanent tax on the ballot, but if you choose to pursue a temporary tax, that is an understandable move.
  • All Council members should be prepared to answer difficult questions about the city budget. If there are still Council members who believe that the city can cut itself out of this after Thursday night, I encourage you to present these plans. If not, I encourage you to admit you were wrong to publicly say this to get elected, and that we must move forward to provide a desirable level of services to the citizens of Wilmington.

As members of Council have pointed out, once Council moves the issue to a ballot, it must stay out of the campaigning. Ohio law prohibits government/public monies to be spent on most campaigns. Therefore, there will have to be work to create such a committee. As I have been a close and sometimes critical observer of this process, I would like to volunteer to head such a citizen’s committee, which would recruit volunteers and provide information for the passage of the tax increase. There is little doubt in my mind that with a good outreach campaign with Wilmington citizens from across the political spectrum, we can accomplish the goal of passing this tax increase and working to provide the residents of this incredible city the services they need for a city they can be proud of.

Respectfully,
Tyler Williams

It’s Time for Wilmington to Fluoridate its Water

A common hoax that often manifests itself as a pop psychology “experiment” on fear, gullibility, and a lack of scientific literacy involves the chemical dihydrogen monoxide. Hoax victims are often warned of the dangers of this very common chemical: it is a main component of acid rain;can be dangerous in gaseous, liquid, and solid form; it contributes to erosion and rusting; and it is often found in excised tumors from cancer patients. Despite these dangers, the hoax warns, we all ingest or come into contact with this chemical every day. It is then revealed that dihydrogen monoxide is, of course, water.

I bring this point up to illustrate an issue that has been happening in the fluoride debate across the country. Anti-fluoride advocates prey on the fears that many people have of “unnatural” chemicals in what we consume. Instead of focusing on legitimate science, these advocates will often cherry-pick certain studies (there is one in particular that I will focus on below) in order to show that fluoride is dangerous. I will agree on one point with these advocates-fluoride, at certain high levels, definitely has negative health benefits. However, an overview of the scientific literature clearly shows that fluoride in a water system can have positive health benefits, especially in places where people lack access to proper dental care.

What professional organizations say…

American Association of Pediatrics“Water fluoridation continues to be one of the most important tools in our toolbox to prevent tooth decay in children and adults.” Support the US Department of Health and Human Services recommendation of 0.7mg/L to help with dental caries while limiting the risk of dental fluorosis.

Centers for Disease ControlThe Centers for Disease Control named water fluoridation as one of the 10 great public health achievements of the 21st century. The CDC has statements on the science of fluoridation as well as the economic impact of water fluoridation on communities.

American Dental AssociationThe ADA quotes scientific research that water fluoridation holds greatest promise in preventing childhood dental caries in its recommendation that communities pursue water fluoridation.

US Department of Health and Human ServicesThe US Department of Public Health recommends fluoridation to the 0.7mg/L level, which it recently changed from 0.7-1.2mg/L. They say that even though there has been an increase in availability of fluoride in dental products, they do still recommend that communities fluoridate their water to that level (which is also recommended to decrease risk of dental fluorosis).

The recent study that anti-fluoride advocates quote, and why you don’t need to worry about it…

In 2012, Harvard scientists wrote an article entitled “Developmental Fluoride Neurotoxicity: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” Published in a well-regarded journal, the article gained popularity thanks to a write-up on the Huffington Post (which has a strained relationship with good science) by Dr. Joseph Mercola (a favorite target of legitimate science writers and skeptics).

The article is an analysis of studies done mostly in rural mining communities in China. This is one of many problems from the article, and here are some others that I have gleaned from a variety of scientists who have written in response to the study:

  • The studies examined looked at places with significant naturally occurring fluoride levels, higher than when it is put into the water supply
  • The authors did not have complete information on the studies, so they were not replicable
  • The studies did not have much in the way of compounding variables, i.e. education

The authors of the Harvard study itself admit to many of the flaws of the study, including that many of the studies they looked at were flawed and that their meta-analysis brought questions to light, but did not necessarily provide specific answers beyond saying that high levels of fluoride were potentially hazardous to neurological development. Unfortunately, many of the anti-fluoridation advocates were duped by people like Dr. Mercola, who was given a loudspeaker by the Huffington Post where he chose to further his alternative medicine agenda instead of writing an objective article about what the study said and its limitations.

A brief history water fluoridation in Wilmington…

In 1969, the State of Ohio passed a law requiring fluoridation of water supplies for municipalities of 5,000 people or more. In 1970, thirty communities (including Wilmington) voted to exempt themselves from this law. Currently, Wilmington is joined by twenty-one other communities in the state of Ohio in not fluoridating its water.

Since then, the issue has come up a few other times in Wilmington. In 1986, the Cincinnati Enquirer ran a story about the debate in council. Council members at the time appeared to favor it, but in the debate various illnesses and developmental issues were (wrongly) linked to fluoride treatment. David Hockaday, a city council member at the time who is still fighting against fluoride, was quoted as saying he had textbooks and research to look at the downside of water fluoridation. As anyone reading this knows, nothing ended up happening at the time regarding water fluoridation.

The current plan and the current debate…

The current plan, according to Water Committee Chairperson Kelsey Swindler, has been developed with the recommendations from the US Depatment of Public Health and requirements from the Ohio Revised Code. The goal is to have the lowest effective fluoridation, recommended by the US Department of Public Health while still following Ohio law, which requires that communities fluoridate their water to 0.8mg/L. According to Swindler, City Water Superintendent Jerry Rowlands has estimated startup costs to be around $29,000. However, from grant money available from the Ohio Department of Health Oral Health Project, the city would likely be able to cover much of the start up money.

The current debate has been much quieter, potentially because there is so much more evidence out there that supports water fluoridation. Mr. Hockaday has continued some of his arguments from years ago, although less vociferously. There will inevitably be some out there who appeal to fear about chemicals in the water, which is an appeal to nature that is not backed up by good science.

My thoughts…

Now is the time to fluoridate our water. We have seen nearly one hundred years of science, almost all of it supporting fluoridation. The reports that haven’t have mostly warned about fluoridation in large quantities, which thanks to current technology can be controlled. As a city, we must encourage our city council members to ignore the clamoring of those loudly appealing to fears about the government trying to force chemicals into our bodies. We must help protect our most vulnerable children and adults, those that do not have access to appropriate care from damaging and harmful dental caries. It is time for Wilmington to join countless other communities who have worked to better public health and move forward with a community fluoridation plan.

 

EDITORIAL: The Time for Action is Now in Wilmington City Council

As I wrote last Monday, Wilmington is experiencing serious issues with it’s budget situation. The city budget for 2016 showed a deficit of $1.3 million, and the agreement between council seemed to be that they needed to act soon. This, after a November city council meeting where council said that they would continue the discussion and that they recognized how quickly it needed to happen.

We are now at the beginning of March. Today, March 2nd, the Finance Committee of council had just their second meeting of the year from my understanding. I decided to go, to see if the members of the Finance Committee were going to follow through with their promise to consider options.

The budget discussion started out with Mayor John Stanforth saying that he would be putting a plan for cuts to balance the budget. He then asked for permission from Auditor David Hollingsworth to work with Deputy Auditor Mary Kay Vance on budget issues. I am not sure why this conversation hasn’t happened yet, but Hollingsworth said that was fine, as he would not be available much until after tax season. Stanforth went on to say that the city was broke, and Hollingsworth agreed.

Councilwoman Kelsey Swindler subsequently brought the issue of putting a tax on the ballot–the same discussion that council was having last year, but that nobody has discussed this year. Finance Committee Chair Mark McKay said that he wanted to give the mayor time to show how the cuts would look before they moved on the tax issue. Swindler responded that these needed to be in motion at the same time. McKay subsequently said that he needs more info, like a public forum where the public could decide whether council should put forth a property tax levy or an earnings tax on the ballot. I immediately posed the question, “Isn’t the tax the public forum?” Councilwoman Milburn then said she wanted to learn more about the numbers for each tax. Swindler and McKay both said that they were leaning towards an earnings tax, partially because they believe it to be more fair. Mr. McKay eventually added that he has heard some people saying it is time to put it on the ballot. The committee asked Clerk of Council Marian Miller to provide them with estimated revenue from the potential taxes for discussion at their next meeting.

During the meeting, Councilman McKay continued to show that he is not willing to make the tough decisions when it counts. He was perfectly willing to allow the tax to be debated in public before the committee and/or council moved forward on it. As the meeting went on, he backed off several times as soon as he was challenged. Mrs. Milburn ran on a no tax increase platform, so it is difficult to tell how she truly feels about the tax increase. She seems to have decided it is acceptable to put the tax to voters.

I left the meeting wondering-if Mr. McKay and Mrs. Milburn had not been questioned on their reluctance to put a tax increase on the ballot, what would have been accomplished? Would we all be waiting for the mayor’s office to come up with potential budget cuts so the committee can pour over them? Time is of the essence on an issue like this. It would be a great disappointment if council missed a chance to get it on the November ballot because of feet-dragging. At the end of the meeting, Mr. McKay said that “we’ll try to keep Kelsey happy.” Hopefully, this is not the only impetus for action in the future.

Wilmington Hampered by Budget Shortfall, Inaction

At the Wilmington City Council meeting on January 7, 2016–the first council meeting of the year–City Auditor David Hollingsworth issued a dire warning to the council. If spending and revenue stay the same, the budget deficit for 2016 will be roughly $1.3 million. During 2015, the deficit was $925,000. All told, the city’s General Fund carryover for the end of 2016 could be down to $416,000 from $2.7 million at the end of 2014 (and closer to $8 million just a few years prior). Hollingsworth expressed concern about what the small carryover could do both for the flexibility of spending for the city and the bond rating for the city. He acknowledged that he is not able to make legislative decisions regarding the budget, but that he was counting on council to decide what happens.

And therein lies the problem…

So, what has city council done? After Mr. Hollingsworth’s presentation, Councilperson Mark McKay said that as the Finance committee chair, this was their number one issue on the agenda. One would assume that Finance committee, led by Mr. McKay, would be exploring all options. However, there is no evidence of this happening. In fact, as of the council meeting on February 18th, there had been only one finance committee meeting the entire year. Reports at City Council meetings from the Finance committee have concerned only the transferring of miscellaneous funds, not updates on the progress towards addressing the deficit as one might hope.

The time for action is now

The proverbial can representing the City of Wilmington’s fiscal issues has been kicked for many years, and we are now seeing the point where it can be kicked no more. The City has been able to use its significant carryover from just shy of a decade ago to allow itself to keep taxes the same while working to cut some expenditures. Unfortunately, this has gotten the city to the point where it is today. Only a few council members in recent history have been willing to stand up and say that there is an issue that must be fixed, and this council’s hand has finally been forced.

The lack of discussion on real issues at the last two council meetings has been disappointing and, at times, embarrassing. A likely non-existent lead problem, bridge issues at the cemetery, an extended reading of a social media post, and a long presentation by an outside group have taken up at least half of the previous two council meetings. I believe that council takes this seriously, but this type of inaction at council makes any decision that council makes difficult to defend.

The Possibility of a Tax Levy

So what can council do? It seems like cutting, cutting, and cutting more has not quite worked. It is difficult for a city to make too many more cuts when so much of its money is geared towards necessary services. I am sure there are small cuts that departments can make, but these could certainly hurt some of the basic services. One option that City Council and Mayor Stanforth need to consider is an increase in the city income tax. There may be no other way around it at this point. However, this will be an uphill battle for council. Unfortunately, some have made ill-advised pledges not to raise taxes. This levy will need support from the city to pass. And it needs to happen soon. If council does not bring this to the discussion soon, they run the risk of rushing it to the ballot, which has the effect of leading to a backlash from the public.

This budget issue will be a focus for The Wilmington Bulletin in the coming months. Council must act to be a bellwether in the fight to balance the budget and help ensure Wilmington’s fiscal stability. If they don’t, it is residents of the city that will likely feel the consequences.