Mayor battles for lead program

Planned changes should speed efforts, he tells lawmakers

February 27, 2002|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

Mayor Martin O'Malley told state lawmakers yesterday that Baltimore's lead paint program is entangled in bureaucracy, but he hopes planned changes will speed up efforts to remove the hazard from city homes.

O'Malley urged legislators not to cut money allotted for the city's lead abatement program, designed to remove lead paint from Baltimore's aging houses.

State budget analysts are recommending that the General Assembly cut $2 million of the $3.5 million Gov. Parris N. Glendening is seeking for the program. Budget analysts say the city doesn't need the money because it hasn't spent $3.9 million of the $6.1 million earmarked for the program during the past two years.

Raymond A. Skinner, state secretary of housing and community development, backed city officials in opposing the suggested cuts, says there is no guarantee that the next governor will invest in the program if the money is cut this year.

"Given our fiscal state, if these funds are cut now, they may not be available later, and we don't think we should take that chance," Skinner told members of a House Appropriations subcommittee.

O'Malley, armed with statistics showing a 35 percent decrease in the number of children suffering from lead poisoning since 1999, also warned that any cuts would reverse recent gains.

"Years ago, we thought this was an impossible, intractable problem in Baltimore," O'Malley said. "Now [other cities] are looking at what we are doing because they see you do not have to throw up your arms about it."

Although the program has achieved some success, city Health Commissioner Dr. Peter L. Beilenson and Deputy Housing Commissioner Denise M. Duval told lawmakers that some elements of the program are making it difficult to implement.

The program provides low-interest loans of up to $8,500 to residents in 11 city ZIP codes who want to remove lead paint from their homes. But because those ZIP codes are in the city's most blighted neighborhoods - primarily in East and West Baltimore - officials often find that thousands of dollars worth of extra work is needed to bring the properties up to code.

Duval said the average cost for fixing a property is $30,000, forcing officials to come up with additional grants that require hundreds of pages of paperwork. When the five-month application process is completed, there are not enough qualified contractors ready to remove the lead paint, Duval said.

Of the 400 lead abatement projects in the planning and approval stage, 70 have been completed, resulting in the large pool of unused money, city officials said.

The city has not spent roughly $1.9 million in state funds earmarked for lead abatement, $1.4 million for alternative housing for people whose houses are being repaired and $500,000 that is supposed to be used to remove lead paint from windowsills.

Matt Klein, a senior budget analyst for the Department of Legislative Services, said the state cannot afford to provide money that is not being used. He recommended that the subcommittee cut the city's money until the city proves it can be spent.

Skinner, whose department oversees the program, vowed to work with city officials so that the money is spent more quickly. He said he plans to increase the $8,500 ceiling for lead abatement work to $15,000 so that more city properties can qualify for the program.

City officials say that change, along with plans to find more contractors, would drastically decrease the time it takes to complete a project. To combat the paperwork, Duval said, her office is attempting to consolidate applications so that homeowners can complete them faster.

Lawmakers appeared to be happy with the proposed changes but expressed concern about the unspent state money.

"I am disturbed that we have $3.9 million in unspent funding out there in never-never land," said Del. Howard P. Rawlings, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Appropriations Committee. "But I think we will work it out because it is a priority for the state and the city of Baltimore."

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