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Program to curb lead poisoning stalls in budget squabble between Poloncarz, lawmakers

A budget tug of war between Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz and the County Legislature is leaving a program to combat lead poisoning in limbo, for now, even as federal data shows young children in Western New York suffer from lead poisoning rates three times higher than those in Flint, Mich.

In March, Poloncarz announced a plan to earmark $3.75 million over the next five years to nearly double the number of environmental health inspections and buy new equipment to further the county’s efforts to combat lead poisoning. Each year, $750,000 would be spent, largely to cover the cost of hiring eight additional county employees.

But last week, the Legislature approved a watered-down resolution to earmark the $750,000. Lawmakers made the funding contingent on the county receiving a $3 million federal grant. County administrators don’t expect to learn whether they’ve been awarded the grant for two or three months.

The approved resolution also stripped out any references to hiring new county employees, which included five additional home inspectors, a nurse to follow up on child lead poisoning cases, a supervisor and clerk.

“The amendment they approved essentially destroys an immediate start,” Poloncarz said.

All sides say they support increasing the county’s efforts to curb lead poisoning in children. But they aren’t on the same page regarding how to cover the cost, which is causing ongoing heartburn for public health advocates.

Some legislators accused Poloncarz of being unwilling to compromise, growing the size of government, and funding a costly proposal with one-time revenue.

“This Legislature majority does not believe in creating new jobs when we have 247 vacant county jobs that are fully funded in the budget,” said Majority Leader Joseph Lorigo, C-West Seneca. “The county executive had an opportunity to prioritize lead over vacant positions, and he didn’t.”

Poloncarz, meanwhile, said he won’t negotiate over public health priorities. He accused legislators of playing politics while leaving children to suffer.

“I don’t want this to be a war,” he said. “I’m as surprised as anyone else that something that’s there to protect the public’s health, especially childhood health, becomes so contentious in the eyes of some people. It shouldn’t be that way.”

He has refused to meet Legislature demands that he make one-for-one vacant position cuts to make room for the eight new lead program staffers, saying it sets a bad precedent. He also said some current staff vacancies are in departments he doesn’t control. And other vacant staff positions exist in departments that the Legislature would like to keep fully staffed, like parks and public works, he said.

Legislature majority members, however, expressed resentment that Poloncarz failed to consult with them, did not make cuts elsewhere before submitting his resolution, and did not respond to their letter asking for a compromise. They added that it’s hard to believe Poloncarz can’t find even a few vacant positions to cut to help offset the program’s cost.

“Meet us halfway, we offered,” Lorigo said.

Except for the first year, Poloncarz said he expects to pay for his lead abatement proposal with recurring revenue. Funding the first year would come from the county’s $18 million surplus from last year. That isn’t too much to ask, he said.

He also said he expects to delete some positions in the Department of Social Services over the summer as the state takes over more Medicaid administration functions, but he doesn’t know exactly when.

Lorigo worked with Democratic Legislator Patrick Burke of Buffalo to amend Poloncarz’s proposal. The amendment approved Thursday commits to providing $750,000 in lead program funding, a basic statement of assurance to potential federal grant funders.

But the last-minute amendment took some legislators, including Democratic Minority Leader Thomas Loughran of Amherst, by surprise and led to criticism about back-room dealing that left many out of the loop. That resulted in Lorigo and Burke essentially accusing Loughran of being a passive bystander, instead of leading on the issue himself.

After half an hour of debate, the Legislature unanimously passed the resolution to prevent the potential loss of a $3 million grant award.

County Health Commissioner Gale Burstein said there’s no way of knowing whether the county will win the grant, offered through the federal Housing and Urban Development Department, though she is optimistic. She added that only 15 such grants would be awarded nationwide. A HUD spokesman said Monday that 19 applications were submitted for the grant, requesting about $10 million more than what HUD has available to award.

“We did submit a very strong, well-written grant application, and we do have a very successful track record of doing this kind of thing successfully,” Burstein said of the Health Department’s application. “I just don’t know what our competition is.”