Nearly two years after a Sonoma County task force warned of an oral health crisis among low-income children, crucial dental care infrastructure is being put into place to meet the need.

This includes the expansion of dental clinics operated in the North County by Alliance Medical Center; the construction of a brand new dental clinic in operated Santa Rosa Community Health Centers and the final outfitting of St. Joseph Health's new mobile dental clinic.

The projects are being funded by three grants totaling nearly $1.3 million from First 5 Sonoma County Commission, which promotes early childhood development. The two most recent grants alone will increase local dental care services by 50 percent, the First 5 commission said.

"We're building a sustainable system and increasing the amount of services that can be provided to children," said Loren Soukup, the commission's chairwoman.

The new projects are the fruit of a county-wide health care assessment that shocked many in the county.

In the summer of 2011, a report from the Sonoma County Task Force on Oral Health found there were only 15 dentists for 109,000 low income children — a fraction of the pool available to kids with private insurance.

The report also revealed that 52 percent of the county's third-graders had a history of tooth decay, exceeding the state average. What's more, the county's impoverished kids were twice as likely to suffer from dental decay as children from more affluent families.

Local health care experts contend that much of the problem stems from the fact that very few private practice dentists in the area accept public dental insurance. That leaves organizations like St. Joseph and federally qualified health centers, among others, to pick up the slack.

This week, First 5 announced that it was awarding $516,924 to Alliance Medical Center to renovate dental facilities and add two pediatric operatories to its main Healdsburg clinic. Part of the grant will also be used to purchase equipment for Alliance's mobile dental operation, which will be used at the health center's Windsor and Cloverdale clinics.

The $753,382 grant First 5 is giving to Santa Rosa Community Health Centers will be used as "working capital" for the first two years of operation of a new dental clinic expected to open by the end of the year on North Dutton Avenue in west Santa Rosa.

First 5 previously gave $50,000 to St. Joseph Health Sonoma County to purchase equipment for its new mobile dental clinic, which recently arrived from Ohio, where it was custom manufactured. St. Joseph, which runs both Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital and Petaluma Valley Hospital, has been without a dental van since it donated its old mobile clinic to a Placerville-based nonprofit called Tooth Travelers.

St. Joseph's new mobile clinic will have three dental chairs, compared to two in the previous dental van. The lack of dental services for low-income children in Santa Rosa has flooded St. Joseph's fixed dental clinic at Lombardi Court in west Santa Rosa, said Stacey Stirling, St. Joseph's operation manager.

Local access to dental care is "so bad at times we have a six-month wait for treatment at the clinic," Stirling said in an email. For this reason, she said, St. Joseph welcomes Santa Rosa Community Health Centers' planned construction of a new dental clinic less than 3 miles away on North Dutton Avenue.

Naomi Fuchs, the CEO of Santa Rosa Community Health Centers, said the new clinic, with 14 dental chairs, will have the capacity to treat 6,500 people a year. Fuchs said her organization is currently in escrow on a North Dutton Avenue property

Purchase of the building will cost $1.5 million, while renovation and dental facilities will cost another $2.8 million. The health center has already received a federal grant to cover the $2.8 million cost of renovation equipment.

"Now, we just need to raise the $1.5 million to purchase the building," Fuchs said, adding that the clinic will more than double dental services for those in Santa Rosa who are either covered by Medi-Cal, the state's Medicaid insurance, or have no health insurance.

"This is such an important project," she said. "Our community, our county needs it so much."

Pam Chanter, the co-chairwoman of the Sonoma County Oral Health Task Force, said the 2011 assessment was a "catalyst" that raised greater awareness of the local dental health crisis.

"People were shocked," she said. "Even leaders in our community had no idea how serious this problem was."

The task force was originally supposed to remain intact for six months to prepare the report, she said. Instead, the task force worked for two years to promote, among other things, greater dental health infrastructure for low-income residents.

"A lot of these centers don't have the financial ability to add those dental chairs, and with this funding they will be allowing these centers to increase the amount of services they provide to children and pregnant or postpartem moms."

(You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com.)