O'Malley blasts proposal to cut lead paint money

City yet to spend all it has, analysts say

February 26, 2002|By Michael James and Tim Craig | Michael James and Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

For the second time in less than a week, Mayor Martin O'Malley is on the political offensive against cost-cutting state officials who propose to withhold money from a city program - this time, lead paint removal from aging properties.

And, once again, state officials are saying the city isn't spending the money it already has.

O'Malley, speaking yesterday at a news conference he called in front of a lead-abated house in Butchers Hill, accused "Annapolis" of being insensitive to the needs of inner-city children exposed to lead paint. He was referring to state budget analysts who have recommended holding back about $2 million from the city's lead paint abatement program, largely because the city hasn't spent $3.9 million earmarked for the program in the past.

"We're finally making progress on the lead paint problem that's turning heads around the nation, and they want to cut all this out," O'Malley said. "It's kind of shallow and shortsighted. ... Obviously a politician's obsession to do a tax cut is more important than the lead paint issue."

Baltimore's lead paint abatement initiative is one of the city's most ballyhooed programs and aims to curb lead poisoning in houses by going after shoddy landlords and by frequent testing of children who may be exposed. City officials say the program is working and is decreasing lead exposure, but unspent money has become a target for budget analysts looking to make cuts.

The Department of Legislative Services is recommending that legislators cut $2 million from about $3.5 million the governor included in the budget for the city's lead paint abatement program.

"While they are encumbering the money, they are not spending it," said Matt Klein, a senior budget analyst in the department. He noted that the city has completed only 70 abatement projects - of an anticipated 397 - in two years.

O'Malley said he didn't think the city was dragging its feet in spending allotted money and said part of the delay stems from late-arriving state funds. Often, he said, money from state sources does not hit city coffers until midyear. He also said city officials are trying to move slowly in implementing an effective abatement program.

"Better to ramp up and do it right now than throw money out the window," O'Malley said. "I wish they'd just give it to us. ... We're not perfect by a long shot on this stuff, but darn it, we're running in the right direction. They shouldn't take away the money we need to do the job right."

O'Malley, who will argue against the state cutbacks before an appropriations subcommittee in Annapolis today, also vociferously objected Friday to proposed budget cuts targeted at more than half of a $9 million allocation the city receives for drug treatment. As with funding for the lead program, the Legislative Services Department has proposed the drug treatment cuts because the city wasn't spending enough money.

"It's a time-honored sort of bureaucratic tradition that departments in government always fear not spending all their money," O'Malley said. "I guess they would rather that we spent it quickly and poorly right away."

The state has also given the city $500,000 in the past two years to remove lead paint from windowsills. But so far, the city has approved only one project, which will cost about $2,700 when it is completed.

Another large pot of money - about $1.4 million - was given to the abatement program to enable city officials to find alternative housing for people whose homes were being cleared of lead. None of that money has been used, either, state officials said.

Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, Baltimore's health commissioner, said that in addition to the 70 abatement projects that have been completed, 400 others are "in the pipeline." He said the $1.4 million allocated to finding alternative housing hasn't been spent because many of the homes that have been abated so far were vacant.

The $500,000 for windowsills, Beilenson said, has been specifically earmarked for residences that need lead removal just from windows - which too narrowly defines the necessary work. Most of the projects undertaken so far have been entire houses, Beilenson said.

Beilenson said he thought the abatement program has been very successful and cited figures showing that fewer city children are testing positive for elevated levels of lead in their bloodstream.

He also said the program has helped to stimulate economic development, noting the case of a three-story rowhouse in the 1900 block of E. Lombard St. that was abated through the program and has since sold for $215,000 to a Columbia couple.

"Obviously not all of them will sell for over $200,000, but these houses will clearly go up in market value, and that's a good economic development tool," Beilenson said. "It's important to protect kids, that's priority number one. But it's also important to stimulate economic development."

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