hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News April 2015



Bennington says no to fluoridated water


A proposal to add fluoride to Bennington’s drinking water has been dropped after the town’s voters rejected the idea by a lopsided margin.

An advisory question on the March 3 town meeting ballot asked whether the town should fluoridate its water to help prevent tooth decay. A total of 1,539 voters, or about 58 percent, said no, while 1,117 said yes.

The vote capped a heated campaign in which both sides had flooded local newspapers and Web sites with arguments pro and con – and in which each side had accused the other of making exaggerated or dishonest claims. It was the sixth time since the early 1960s that Bennington had considered and rejected the idea of fluoridation.

The question was put on the ballot this year at the request of the Bennington Oral Health Coalition, a group of local health care professionals who were concerned about the poor condition of local children’s teeth. A report issued by the state Health Department last fall concluded that kindergartners and third-graders at two local elementary schools, Bennington Elementary and Molly Stark, had among the highest incidences of cavities among 24 schools surveyed across Vermont.

Supporters cited estimates by the American Dental Association that fluoridation of a municipal water supply can reduce the incidence of cavities in adults and children by between 20 percent and 40 percent.

But opponents decried fluoridation as “mass medication” and suggested that overexposure to fluoride could have unintended health consequences for some people. Campaign signs against the ballot question bore the slogan, “If in doubt, leave it out.”

Although the town meeting vote was only advisory, the town Select Board, whose chairman had endorsed fluoridation, opted not to pursue the idea further. The Select Board also serves as the town’s Board of Health.

The Bennington Banner reported in late March that the Bennington Oral Health Coalition had officially withdrawn its recommendation to add fluoride to the town’s water but had asked to continue its efforts to improve local oral health as an official subcommittee of the Board of Health.


In other news from around the region in February and March:


Voters could decide sale of nursing home
Opponents of a plan to sell Warren County’s nursing home to a private company are pushing for a public referendum that could block the sale.

County supervisors voted Feb. 20 to sell Westmount Health Facility in Queensbury for $2.3 million to Centers Health Care, a private company in the Bronx that has been buying up county nursing homes across upstate New York in recent years.

The Post-Star of Glens Falls reported that opponents are seeking to gather 2,000 signatures by April 8 to force a public vote on the sale. If they’re successful, a vote could be scheduled no sooner than 60 days after that.

The newspaper identified Chris Harrington, a certified nursing assistant at Westmount, as the leader of the petition drive. Harrington said in early March that he and several other employees were involved in the effort but that they so far had not received any support from their union, the Civil Service Employees Association.

Many county-run nursing homes in New York were founded decades ago to provide a place for people who could no longer live independently – and who lacked the resources to pay for their own care. The county homes traditionally have been more willing than private facilities to accept patients who have few or no resources and whose conditions require costly care.

But the county homes have become an ever-larger target for budget hawks in recent years as Medicaid reimbursement rates have failed to keep pace with sharply rising medical costs, resulting in ever-larger operating deficits. Many counties have moved to privatize the facilities, not least because private operators can obtain better reimbursement rates than the counties receive.

Centers Health Care, formerly known as Centers for Specialty Care Group, has in the past few years acquired nursing homes from Washington, Essex and Fulton counties. In January, Saratoga County completed the sale of its Maplewood Manor home in Ballston Spa to another private company, Zenith Health Care Group of Long Island. And Columbia County supervisors have been moving toward a sale of the Pine Haven nursing home in Philmont, where Centers Health Care is one of the bidders.

In Warren County, opponents of the Westmount sale, including some county supervisors, have raised questions about the quality of care and staffing practices at other Centers Health Care facilities. When the sale was approved in February, five of the county’s 20 supervisors voted against it.

Supporters of the sale have argued that a referendum will simply delay the sale and drive up the cost to county taxpayers for subsidizing the nursing home.

Exactly how much the county stands to save from selling the home is unclear. The county projected in November that Westmount would lose $2.5 million in 2014-15, but revised figures in February reduced that estimate to $700,000.

The referendum to block the sale is possible because supervisors passed a county law in February to provide for a sale to Centers Specialty Care without going to a public bid.


Berkshires, Bennington near top for arts
The arts scenes in Berkshire and Bennington counties rank among the most vibrant in the country in a new report compiled by a national research organization.

The National Center for Arts Research, a group affiliated with Southern Methodist University, ranked the Pittsfield metropolitan area, defined as all of Berkshire County, at No. 7, and the Bennington area, including Manchester, at No. 15 on its Top 20 list of communities of fewer than 1 million residents.

In compiling the report, “Hotbeds of America’s Arts and Culture,” researchers considered three factors to rank the vibrancy of local arts scenes:
• the number of artists, arts organizations and arts-related jobs in a community;
• the total revenue, expenses and compensation provided by nonprofit arts organizations; and
• the level of government support for the arts in state and federal dollars.
Each of these factors was weighted on a per-capita basis.

Berkshire and Bennington counties were among only five communities in the Northeast to make the Top 20 list. The others were Vineyard Haven, Mass., at No. 16, and Burlington (No. 19) and Barre (No. 10), Vt.

Communities in the West fared well in the smaller-cities ranking, with Glenwood Springs, Colo., Santa Fe, N.M., and Jackson, Wyo., capturing the top three positions.

In its report, the National Center for Arts Research cited the Berkshires for its many well-known arts organizations, including Mass MoCA, Berkshire Theatre Group, Jacob’s Pillow, the Norman Rockwell Museum, Barrington Stage, Aston Magna Festival, Berkshire Music School, Williamstown Theatre Festival and Tanglewood. The area ranked No. 31 in the nation for arts providers, No. 14 for arts dollars and No. 10 for government support. But its support for theater and dance in particular ranked No. 3 nationally.

In Bennington County, the report cited Bennington Arts Guild, the Bennington Center for the Arts, Manchester Music Festival, Bennington Museum and Vermont Arts Exchange among the most notable arts providers. The area ranked No. 65 nationally in arts providers, No. 39 in arts dollars and No. 25 in government support.

The Rutland Herald, in reporting on the rankings, quoted Eric Peterson, the founding producing artistic director of Oldcastle Theatre Company, as saying Bennington’s showing was “pretty impressive.”

“We beat Burlington, actually,” he said with a laugh.


-- Compiled by Fred Daley