Milwaukee City Hall. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

Milwaukee City Hall. Photo by Jeramey Jannene.

A proposal pending before the Common Council would allocate nearly $100 million in federal funds to address lead poisoning through 2024.

Introduced by Alderman Jose G. Perez, the proposal calls for up to $97.7 million from the city’s $394.2 million American Rescue Plan Act appropriation to be used to reduce childhood lead poisoning. It mirrors a request by the Coalition on Lead Emergency (COLE), a broad-based advocacy and education group that has pushed the city for years to address all sources of lead poisoning.

“I just want to thank COLE,” said Perez in introducing his proposal to the Public Safety & Health Committee on Thursday. “I have been working with them for many years.”

The biggest portion of the funds, $50 million, would go towards addressing residential properties with lead abatement orders. The city currently reviews the homes of families where a child age six or younger tests positive for a blood lead level of 20 micrograms per deciliter or more and issues a scope of work to a contractor to abate issues related to paint or soil.

The proposal would also allocate $17 million to addressing a key COLE policy goal: lowering the threshold where intervention is required from 20 micrograms per deciliter to five. Lowering the threshold is estimated to add 1,860 annual cases. The Milwaukee Health Department estimated it would contract out 154 abatements in 2020 at a cost of $20,000 to $25,000 each. Much of the work is already federally funded through a multi-year grant.

COLE successfully advocated for an amendment to the 2021 budget that requested $3.55 million to assess, but not abate, the homes of families where a child tested positive for blood lead levels between five and 20 micrograms per deciliter. That amendment was funded by carryover funding as MHD was unable to perform all of the abatements planned in 2020 as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Additional funding would towards recruiting and training contractors to perform the work ($5 million); temporarily housing families displaced while abatement work is occurring ($6 million); “critical property maintenance repairs” for low-income homeowners ($5 million); 32 lead outreach and education workers to staff clinics and go door-to-door in areas with high poisoning rates ($5 million); “Healthy Home Kits,” including water filters and three water filter technicians ($4.5 million); 18 nurses to test Milwaukee Public Schools students ages three to five ($4 million); a lead-safe media campaign ($1 million); and a lead hotline ($224,000).

“I wanted to get this proposal and this resolution front and center and start a discussion so we can have an impact,” said Perez. He acknowledged that his fellow council members have already expressed a desire to tweak the proposal. The council is also contemplating a number of other ARPA funding proposals, including a $93 million starter plan from Mayor Tom Barrett, a $150 million housing plan from Ald. Robert Bauman and a $400,000 universal basic income plan from Alderwoman Chantia Lewis. Other proposals are also expected. The council already allocated $3.8 million in funding towards the city’s Earn & Learn high school employment program.

“We do support looking at this and using ARPA funds,” said budget director Dennis Yaccarino. But the committee quickly moved to hold the matter for a future meeting.

Barrett’s $93 million proposal is much broader than lead issues, but includes $6 million for contractor training. Council members have publicly said they expect to also delay a vote on that proposal until September, following the council’s August recess.

There could be more certainty on another critical funding source by that time.

While most of the plan’s funding would go towards lead paint and lead soil issues, Perez’s resolution also directs the Milwaukee Water Works (MWW) to work with the Water Equity Task Force to create a plan to replace 5,000 to 15,000 lead service lines to homes per year across the next decade. Funding for that would come from a proposed federal infrastructure bill, the current version of which includes $45 billion for nationwide lead service line replacement. President Joe Biden originally called for that proposal to be adopted in July.

Milwaukee currently has approximately 70,000 lead service lines remaining and has a goal of replacing approximately 1,100 per year. In 2018, the cost to replace every lead service line in Milwaukee was estimated at $750 million.

MWW Superintendent Karen Dettmer confirmed on Friday during a Public Works Committee meeting that contractor capacity remains a key issue. She said Milwaukee contractors are currently being hired away to work in Denver as that city works to replace 8,000 service lines per year as a result of falling out of compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency‘s Lead and Copper Rule. Milwaukee is currently in compliance with the rule through its orthophosphate water treatment practices.

The discussion on a lead abatement funding surge comes as the city is again publicly discussing a failure of the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program and expects to receive an update on a criminal investigation into the program in the coming weeks.

Related Legislation: File 210512

More about the Lead Crisis

Read more about Lead Crisis here



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