Poloncarz leads on lead while Brown dithers

Reporting, analysis and commentary
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post

There’s been chatter about the need for someone to step up and champion the cause of reducing lead hazards in the city. I wouldn’t say Erie County Mark Poloncarz seized the leadership mantle Wednesday, but he became the first local official to advance a meaningful proposal for addressing the issue.

So, considering the political landscape, he has become a giant among midgets.

Poloncarz announced an initiative that has several important components:

  • The county Health Department would hire six additional inspectors to complement the 12½ already on staff to conduct housing inspections for lead and other health violations. A nurse and clerk would also be added to the staff, at a total cost of $750,000 a year. The hiring requires the approval of the Erie County Legislature.
  • The county would also adopt a stricter standard for what it considers a concerning amount of lead in blood tests. The federal government four years ago lowered the threshold that requires medical care in children from 10 to 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood. The state Health Department continues to use the higher threshold, but Poloncarz said the county will use the federal standard.
  • The county would make $436,838 available in loans and grants over five years to help property owners replace windows, which are a leading source of lead dust.

This is all good, but as the county executive acknowledged at his press conference Wednesday, it is only a start.

Indeed, consider:

  • Even with the added staff, the amount of manpower committed to inspecting properties for lead (18 ½) would be less than in Rochester (25), which is a smaller city with less severe problems. Unlike here, city government in Rochester also lends inspectors to the cause headed up by the county. (More on that in a minute.)
  • Health officials here have identified 85,000 properties in Buffalo at risk of lead hazards, including 12,000 that are home to young children already identified with lead in their blood. While the added inspectors would increase the county’s capacity for inspections –  to 2,100 to 2,400 units a year – that makes for an agonizingly long time – up to 35 years – before all the at-risk properties are inspected.
  • Unlike in Rochester, inspectors in Buffalo do not have legal authorization to inspect interiors, where most of the lead hazards lie. That access would require a change in the city charter. (More about that in a minute.) Put another way, the county can add all the inspectors it wants, but it doesn’t mean they’re going to be able to inspect the insides of houses.
  • The $436,838 pledged for remediation won’t go very far when you consider it typically costs $10,000 to $20,000 to make a contaminated house lead safe.

Nevertheless, Polocarz deserves credit for taking a step in the right direction. Compare that with Mayor Byron Brown.

For months – actually, years – the mayor has been largely indifferent to the problem. He now appears to be flat out obstinate, refusing thus far to be a meaningful part of the solution.

The mayor told The Buffalo News his administration is conducting an internal review to determine how it can address the lead problem, and earlier this week his administration asked the Common Council to extend a contract with a company whose work will be expanded to include lead testing. Details are fuzzy, however.

Poloncarz said at his press conference that the mayor thus far has not committed to any specifics on how the city might work more closely with the county. Health Commissioner Gale Burstein said the lines of communication between city and county staff have yet to open. When pressed, she acknowledged that City Hall has yet to meet with her staff to discuss the lead problem or how they can work together in addressing it.

I sense Burstein wants to do the right thing; she has got to be frustrated.

Brown told Investigative Post last summer that he was willing to consider working with the county to address the lead problem. His administration did not follow through, however.

The county then enlisted the state’s associate health commissioner to write Brown in January asking for a meeting. Still no response. Since Dan Telvock broke that story there has been talk of a city-county meeting, but Burstein said Wednesday that has yet to happen, and she left the clear impression that city officials were the hold up.

That is flat out unacceptable.

There are several steps the city could and should be taking:

  • Train and certify some or all of its 39 building inspectors to conduct lead tests. Not a single city building inspector now has that certification. None. Nada. Zippo.
  • Revise the city charter to mandate periodic lead inspections, both interior and exterior, in rental properties as a condition of granting a certificate of occupancy. That’s the way Rochester does it, and the mandate is a critical component in that city’s successful drive to reduce lead poisoning.

What passes for action in City Hall is a plan hatched by the Common Council to distribute informational pamphlets and lead testing kits to residents. Underwhelming.

Then again, that passes for progress, considering this is the crew that a few years back passed a resolution asking the Health Department to suspend its lead inspections because they were upsetting some property owners. (I kid you not.)

City Hall may yet come around, although its politicians may have to be shamed into it. For right now, Poloncarz is leading the way with a plan that is a start, but only a start.