O'Malley puts lead program funds in budget

Ehrlich cut $375,000 for enforcement in city

Mayor's plan would fill gap

State says its concern is effective use of resources

General Assembly

April 04, 2005|By Ivan Penn | Ivan Penn,SUN STAFF

Ending a heated dispute over funding for Baltimore's lead-paint program, city officials said Friday that Mayor Martin O'Malley plans to add to his budget the $375,000 that Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. cut from lead-paint enforcement funds the state had been giving the city.

O'Malley has argued throughout the 90-day legislative session in Annapolis that the $375,000 is a critical part of the city's lead-paint efforts because it pays for a lawyer and six inspectors who enforce abatement laws.

The O'Malley administration said the governor's decision not to fund the program seems more like a political attack on the mayor than a sound strategy to prevent lead poisoning.

"The mayor is going to put the money in his 2006 budget," said Steve Kearney, an O'Malley spokesman. "It's a shame that the governor would rather play politics."

Shareese N. DeLeaver, an Ehrlich spokeswoman, said the governor maintains - as he has for several weeks - that the issue is not politics but the most effective use of state resources in combating lead poisoning.

"The administration stands by its position and believes that the monies for the Baltimore City lead-paint enforcement program will be more well-spent in the hands of a broader statewide agency," DeLeaver said.

Ehrlich made lead poisoning prevention one of his priorities for this year's General Assembly session, which ends April 11. During a January news conference, the governor announced that his administration was joining a nationwide effort to end childhood lead poisoning by 2010.

The Ehrlich administration then introduced legislation that would require earlier action to treat children with lead poisoning and require landlords to move more quickly to reduce lead hazards in housing after a child has been poisoned.

The proposal, which was heavily amended by the House of Delegates to close loopholes that community groups said benefited landlords, is awaiting action by the state Senate.

Throughout the legislative session, city lawmakers and the O'Malley administration have worked to have the $375,000 in enforcement money restored. They threatened to oppose the governor's bill if he refused to give the money to the city.

Ehrlich officials refused, arguing that the city has not been as effective as it should have been with the money or its program.

In response, Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Northwest Baltimore Democrat, amended the state's budget bill to require the Maryland Department of the Environment to give the money to the city out of its budget or give it back to the general fund.

The state still will not budge despite a recent report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development showing that the federal government has given Baltimore the highest rating in its efforts at lead hazard control, while issuing the state a failing rating.

Deputy Mayor Jeanne D. Hitchcock said it is important for the city and state to work together to combat lead poisoning because there are important roles for both levels of government. For example, the state cannot inspect owner-occupied housing units for lead paint, but the city can, Hitchcock said.

But Horacio Tablada, director of the MDE office that oversees lead-paint enforcement for the state, said the city does not have the broad powers the state has to require landlords to clean up their properties.

The state has authority to require a landlord to clean up lead problems at every property the person owns - power the city does not have, Tablada said.

"We can do global enforcement," he said. "They can only react when a child is poisoned."

Advocates for victims of lead poisoning have been critical of the dispute between the city and the state, saying that children suffer in the wrangling.

"Kids get lost in the politics," said Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, a Baltimore-based advocacy group.

The governor's legislation would lower the lead level in a child's blood that triggers notices to a landlord of a need to address lead-paint problems. The bill also would lower the blood-lead level that requires a landlord to pay for medical treatment and relocation expenses for poisoned children.

For notification to landlords, the trigger level would drop to 10 micrograms per deciliter from 15 micrograms per deciliter. Landlords could be required to offer money for treatment and possible relocation when children have levels of 15 micrograms per deciliter, down from the current standard of 20.

The bill has been amended to close what community groups such as ACORN saw as loopholes that give landlords unwarranted amounts of time to clean up their properties. ACORN is pushing for further amendments to the bill that would lower the lead levels even more than Ehrlich has proposed.

"We are reasonably happy with the bill now," said Terry Harris, a lawyer who has been working with ACORN on the issue. "We were and still are holding out for lower lead-level triggers."

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