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Lead paint politics leave kids to suffer

“Get the lead out” takes on a double meaning after the Erie County Legislature stalled a plan to remediate homes with lead paint, making kids’ health a mere bargaining chip in the age-old battle over vacant jobs in the county budget.

The result will be a two- to three-month delay in County Executive Mark Poloncarz’s plan to hire eight new workers to curb lead poisoning that afflicts local kids at three times the rate of kids in Flint, Mich., where lead in the drinking water has drawn national attention.

Despite the fact that lead causes brain damage in children and that this area is full of old houses with peeling lead paint, Poloncarz’s remediation plan is on hold because the Republican-aligned Legislature majority demands that he first cut vacant jobs in the budget to offset the eight new hires.

Of course, no such demand was made when the county approved two new Health Department workers last month, or two sheriff’s deputies last fall, to deal with the opiate crisis. Nor was any such demand made when hiring 17 public works employees last fall – workers who will help maintain roads in suburban districts.

“We’ve never done it on anything,” Poloncarz said of the demand that positions be cut to hire the inspectors and nurse to save kids from the irreversible brain damage that comes with exposure to lead paint flakes and dust.

One doesn’t have to be a cynic, just a realist, to note that the bulk of the lead paint problem is in the old homes of Buffalo – a municipality that Republicans have long written off. With relatively few of their voters – or their children – in the city, it’s easy to play budgetary chicken.

But while the majority of the lead problem is in Buffalo, Poloncarz points out that it afflicts kids throughout the county, from Clarence to Orchard Park to West Seneca. “You can’t just say it’s a city issue because it’s not,” he said. But the Legislature majority would never say that, anyway – at least not out loud.

“Lead is a priority,” insists Majority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca. But he quickly points to 247 vacant positions that are funded in the budget.

“We have a responsibility to taxpayers to take care of their money,” Lorigo said.

County executives keep positions vacant as a management tool, giving them room to deal with the unexpected in a $1.7 billion budget. How many vacant jobs are too many is a recurring argument, depending on which party controls which branch of government.

But that budgetary squabble should have nothing to do with preventing kids from suffering the devastating neurological effects of lead paint poisoning.

Poloncarz’s plan was to set aside $750,000 a year for five years to deal with lead, before the county learned of a federal lead abatement program and applied for a $3 million grant. But the Legislature made the county funding dependent on winning the grant – guaranteeing a delay in the effort – and used the grant’s application deadline as leverage to get unanimous support from Democrats. For good measure, they also cut the eight jobs from their resolution, accusing the county executive of refusing to compromise.

And what about the children? Apparently they’re not as important as opioid users or county roads – or scoring a political victory.