Governor promises city more money to fight lead

Clergy, legislators say action against poisonings is overdue

January 22, 2000|By Jim Haner and Timothy B. Wheeler | Jim Haner and Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

Gov. Parris N. Glendening arrived in Baltimore yesterday on a fact-finding mission into the city's epidemic of lead-poisoned children and came face-to-face with its pervasiveness at Union Baptist Church.

Addressing community leaders at the west-side sanctuary, Glendening pledged to send "a substantial sum of money" to bolster the city Health Department's shoestring enforcement budget. Then, he stepped into the crowd to chat.

When he reached the Rev. Douglas Miles, the governor got an earful.

"I told him two of my grandchildren have been lead poisoned in rental houses in this city," Miles said. "So I take this very personally."

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Saturday's editions of The Sun incorrectly characterized the purpose of a visit to Baltimore by Gov. Parris N. Glendening as a fact-finding mission into the city's epidemic of lead-poisoned children. In fact, the governor was in Baltimore for a previously scheduled meeting with Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD) to discuss the group's legislative priorities. The issue of lead paint poisoning came up only briefly at the meeting.
The same article incorrectly quoted the Rev. Douglas Miles as telling the governor about the experiences of Miles' grandchildren with lead poisoning. In fact, Miles did not speak to the governor about lead poisoning. The remarks quoted in the story were made in a separate interview with The Sun.

Miles is the president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, an organization of 200 pastors with a total of 20,000 parishioners, many of them residents of three "hot zone" neighborhoods that produce half the state's lead-poisoning cases.

It is axiomatic in Baltimore that when the alliance speaks, politicians listen. And the alliance did not speak alone.

"I am so angry, I can barely contain myself," said Democratic state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden of Baltimore, who brought a subcommittee meeting on education to a standstill in Annapolis on Thursday after reading a story in The Sun describing how children are being systematically poisoned by lead in slum houses in his east-side district.

"These are my kids we're talking about, my constituents, and it is not lost on anyone that they are also poor and predominantly African-American. The time for talking about this over. We want action from this governor, now."

Miles said: "Very definitely, we will be holding the governor to accounts on this. Now is the moment. Now is the time. It's past time, in fact. But the newspaper somehow seems to have finally gotten everyone's attention.

"This has been devastating the lives of our children for too long, particularly our African-American children. Stopping it is a question of will. It's a question of money."

That assessment comes one week before Glendening and Mayor Martin O'Malley are scheduled to announce what has been promised to be a sweeping package of reforms to stop the poisoning of 1,200 children annually in the city.

An additional 7,000 are exposed to the toxin, which inhibits brain, nerve and bone development, making it difficult for children to learn or control aggressive impulses, and triggering millions of dollars in health, education and criminal justice costs to taxpayers each year, experts say.

But the state has given the city less than $1 million a year to pay for a small enforcement squad of six inspectors to uphold Maryland's regulations against landlords who control thousands of slum units in Baltimore.

This week, Glendening's staff floated a preliminary plan to send the city what would amount to a $200,000 increase to help deal with a decade-old backlog of 1,100 unprosecuted cases.

Echoing children's advocates, doctors and some landlords, one city housing official called that "anemic." The state has a budget surplus of $1 billion, but new lead exposure cases are being reported by city doctors to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the rate of more than 500 a month.

Yesterday, the Maryland Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning -- the state's largest provider of assistance to families of lead poisoned children -- presented a budget to Glendening's staff asking for $80 million over the next few years.

The money would pay for the hiring of inspectors, two dedicated prosecutors and assistance to cash-strapped landlords for the repair and replacement of degraded windows and doors, the greatest source of poisonings.

"That is probably asking too much from this governor at this time," O'Malley said last night. "But $10 million would be a good start as we work to come up with a more comprehensive plan. I think the governor clearly understands the urgent need to do something about these killer houses."

By the time Glendening returned to Annapolis, the earlier aid package envisioned by the administration -- a total of $1 million statewide, including the $200,000 to the city -- appeared to be under review.

"The governor and the mayor are continuing to work on a specific targeted plan to begin addressing some of the issues concerning families living in these lead-infested houses," said spokesman Michael Morrill. "The details are being worked on as we speak."

But the legislature has only begun to speak.

"We're going to push the governor to put more money into this effort," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat and chairwoman of the Budget and Taxation Committee.

Hoffman said she hoped that the O'Malley administration can present the governor with a plan for tackling the city's most lead-riddled neighborhoods in time to get extra state funding for housing cleanups when the governor presents his supplemental budget in the coming months.

"We haven't had the money for enforcement," Hoffman said. "Baltimore City has had minimal enforcement of its housing code."

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