Md. Senate tells city housing authority to explain how it will pay lead judgments

Directive follows lawmakers' letter critical of decision not to pay

April 08, 2011|By Annie Linskey and Scott Calvert, The Baltimore Sun

The Maryland Senate directed Baltimore's public housing authority Friday to explain how it will pay nearly $12 million it owes in court judgments to residents poisoned by lead paint.

A spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said she is willing to work with lawmakers on "thoughtful and constructive" solutions that don't diminish the city's ability to serve 25,000 low-income families.

The Senate issued the direction in a last-minute amendment to the state's $1.45 billion capital budget. It does not carry the force of law, and still could be dropped in as House and Senate negotiators work out differences between their versions of the capital budget.

The action followed a report published by The Baltimore Sun this week that the Housing Authority of Baltimore City is refusing to pay victims in nine cases, even though the agency in each case agreed to the dollar amount or lost a jury trial.

The housing authority says it cannot afford to pay the existing judgments, given a potential flood of additional claims now working through the courts. Rawlings-Blake has echoed those comments, saying that "it is not possible" for the authority to pay.

Sen. Catherine E. Pugh sponsored the amendment directing the housing authority to produce a plan to pay the judgments.

"I think this is unconscionable," said the Baltimore Democrat, who is believed to be considering a run for mayor later this year. "We owe our citizens better than that."

Pugh said the housing authority's refusal to pay — and the fact that it has spent $3.8 million since 2005 to fight lead poisoning claims — are "just ridiculous."

Pugh said the amendment was not a signal that she is entering the mayoral race. "This has nothing to do with that," she said. "It was not about taking a pot shot at the mayor or the city housing." Rather, she said, "it was a reaction to their lack of response to the public."

Rawlings-Blake spokesman Ryan O'Doherty said in a statement that the mayor "is more than willing to work with legislators on thoughtful and constructive solutions that do not negatively impact HABC's capacity to provide lead-safe housing to 25,000 low-income families in need."

City Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano, who also serves as executive director of the public housing authority, was unavailable for comment, a spokeswoman said. The authority is an independent entity overseen by a board of commissioners appointed by the mayor.

The House and Senate have passed separate versions of the capital budget. Pugh's amendment is one of many differences that will have to be worked out in conference committee meetings before the 2011 legislative session ends Monday.

Pugh initially proposed withholding $17 million for the planning of a controversial youth detention center in Baltimore until the housing authority produced a report on the lead poisoning claims. The amendment that passed does not link the detention center funding to the housing authority report.

Three other Baltimore legislators sent Rawlings-Blake a letter earlier this week criticizing the housing authority for using "frivolous and delaying legal tactics" to avoid paying the judgments.

The nine judgments all date from the last three years, but some involve children exposed to poison as far back as the early 1990s. Even small amounts of lead can cause permanent brain damage in children, resulting in learning and behavioral problems. Victims have until age 21 to sue.

HABC is the fifth-largest housing authority in the country, with a $300 million budget. Its officials argue that because most of its funding originates with the federal government, plaintiffs cannot seize it. That issue is the subject of litigation in federal court.

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