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Dealing with lead poisoning, addiction and crumbling roads are legitimate uses of the county surplus

Before being submerged in the debate over what to do with the budget surplus of $18 million, it’s worth acknowledging that Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz and county legislators produced it, at all.

With sales tax revenues undermined by a decreasing number of Canadian shoppers and by the otherwise welcome drop in gasoline prices, producing the surplus was an achievement.

Now, though, comes the debate on how to use that money, and there, Poloncarz has a reasonable proposal. There could be other sensible ideas, as well, but his plan to use much of it for urgent public needs, including lead paint abatement, the opioid crisis and road and bridge work, is plainly defensible. The question is whether county lawmakers have better ideas for dealing with those issues.

Start with the most innocent of county residents, condemned to diminished lives, paint chip by paint chip. Children in Western New York suffer from the highest rates of lead poisoning in all of upstate, acquiring it mainly by ingesting loose chips of lead-based paint in older homes.

About 13 percent of children up to age 5 who were tested in Erie, Niagara, Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties showed evidence of lead poisoning in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Erie County, children were being poisoned at a rate of 14 percent, nearly double the 8.6 percent rate in Monroe County, which includes Rochester, and far higher than the 9.1 percent in Onondaga County, which includes Syracuse.

The consequences for these children, even with low levels of lead in their blood, include lower IQ, a diminished ability to focus on tasks, learning disabilities, behavioral disorders and lower academic achievement. What is more, the damaging effects of lead poisoning cannot be reversed. They need to be prevented.

That’s a crisis. If county lawmakers honestly believe there is a better use than this for surplus county funds, they need to explain what it is.

Next, consider the calamity of opioid addiction. Many of these poor souls are individuals who, suffering from chronic, unendurable pain, were offered relief in the form of powerful but addictive painkillers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone.

But as they became reliant on them, their doctors cut them off, leading many into the open arms of heroin dealers. Heroin is chemically similar to the prescription painkillers, but is far less expensive. That’s a public health crisis on its own, but making matters worse, the heroin is often spiked with deadly fentanyl.

The result has been an ever-quickening cascade of deaths. Washington and Albany need to respond, but there is no reason that Erie County shouldn’t attack this problem, as well. After some initial reluctance, legislators have signaled they will go along with this Poloncarz initiative.

Finally, roads and bridges are a favorite subject of county legislators, many of whom have complained that Poloncarz didn’t spend enough to repair and maintain the county’s transportation arteries. Indeed, his Republican challenger in the 2015 election, Assemblyman Raymond Walter, made a point of that in his campaign.

It’s a challenging task, with 2,400 lane-miles of road in the county’s jurisdiction. And, like many other places around New York State, many roads and bridges here are substandard. They cost money to maintain and repair. Using surplus money for that kind of work makes a wise use of “one-shot” funds.

Legislators may have other good ideas for how to use these funds, but they cannot do so by disputing the urgent nature of each of these issues. They may choose to ignore them today, but that doesn’t mean the need will have gone away.