Lead abatement program defended

September 27, 1994|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer JoAnna Daemmrich contributed to this article.

Baltimore Housing Authority officials yesterday continued to disavow findings in a federal audit that criticized the agency for knowingly exposing families in public housing to dangerous levels of lead paint and dust, a federal housing official said.

At the same time, however, authority officials admitted that there were problems in the maintenance of the city's 18,000 publicly owned apartments and houses.

During a private two-hour meeting yesterday in the Baltimore office of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, authority Deputy Director Eric Brown defended, debated and, at times, agreed with the audit's seven findings, which chided the agency for its $25 million no-bid repair program, for the purchase of Chevrolet Blazers for personal use by top administrators and for awarding contracts to relatives of an employee and a board member.

The agency also found that the authority misspent $725,759 and must return it.

Over the next 60 days, the authority is required to prepare a restructuring plan for HUD that would tackle the audit's directives or to argue why change is not needed.

During the meeting yesterday, Mr. Brown pledged to show that the authority has made great strides to protect its residents from poisonous lead paint and dust, citing a $131 million renovation program of 4,500 apartments in 10 developments, including Cherry Hill, Poe Homes, McCulloh Homes and Perkins Homes, said William D. Tamburrino, director of HUD's Baltimore field office.

The testing and abatement performed under that project -- at a cost of up to $10,000 per unit -- sharply contrast the findings of the audit, Mr. Brown told HUD officials.

The audit concluded that the authority moved families into more than 200 newly renovated apartments before testing them for lead and that it knowingly housed children with elevated lead levels in units that had lead hazards.

Mr. Brown did not return phone calls for comment. In a statement, housing spokesman Zack Germroth continued to dispute the audit findings, which the authority has done since a draft of the investigation was reported in The Sun last week.

Instead, Mr. Germroth described the authority as a national model for lead paint and lead dust abatement.

"One of the issues with which HABC strongly disagrees is the issue of lead paint abatement," the statement said. "HABC would never knowingly or intentionally place children at risk, as implied by the audit. Matter of fact, HABC makes the point that its approach to lead paint abatement may be more aggressive than any other landlord in the state of Maryland.

"Housing authorities around the nation and housing agencies from other countries have continually sought advice from HABC on lead paint abatement and have held HABC as their model."

As local and federal officials wrangle over the audit, the city's authority found added support from one City Council member during last night's council session.

Councilwoman Vera P. Hall, who chairs the council housing committee, argued that the authority was improving the quality of life for its residents.

"Notwithstanding the recent controversy, our housing commissioner and I and several other people have been working diligently to make sure that people in public housing would come home to a decent place to lay their heads."

HUD's Mr. Tamburrino said that authority officials were expected to respond soon to other audit findings, including whether employees will be required to disclose potential conflicts of interest in the future and a response outlining the methods behind awarding contracts under the no-bid program.

Mr. Germroth's statement said the authority does agree with "some issues raised in the audit," which Mr. Tamburrino said included criticisms of the authority's maintenance procedures and the hiring of its maintenance workers. The audit chided the authority for shoddy maintenance and for hiring workers with no related skills.

"They resented being told what they already knew," Mr. Tamburrino said. "They said they are engaging in a firm, comprehensive analysis of their maintenance procedures."

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