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MDE faulted for lead-paint follow-up

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The Maryland Department of the Environment has not followed up on at least 900 rental housing units with hazardous lead paint whose owners failed to maintain annual registration with the agency, state auditors have found.

In a letter this week to a joint House-Senate committee, the Office of Legislative Audits said that in the past three years the MDE has reduced but not eliminated a backlog of rental housing units that need checking to find out why they are no longer registered as available to tenants with young children. Auditors reported in 2011 that they found about 3,000 properties that had been registered in 2008 that had not renewed in subsequent years.

After that report, the department sent out a mass mailing to property owners to get them registered. But auditors said that "the follow-up process was not comprehensive or timely," leaving hundreds of properties unaccounted for.

State law requires all housing units built before 1950 that are rented to families be registered and have lead paint risks dealt with, because youngsters who ingest even tiny amounts of lead dust or paint flakes can suffer lasting learning and behavioral problems.

Lawmakers have withheld $100,000 from the department's budget this year until it addresses this and other problems found in the earlier audit. The follow-up on unregistered property is the one unresolved finding.

Horacio Tablada, who oversees lead-paint regulations at MDE, defended the agency's efforts to track down rental properties that dropped off the state's registry. He said after the initial audit his staff uncovered more than 24,000 rental units that had failed to renew their registration. The department in recent years changed its computer system for logging in registrations, he said, which complicated follow-up.

After mass-mailing warning letters, Tablada said, that backlog has been whittled to 900.

The agency also collected $925,000 in fees from properties prodded into re-registering, he added. Revenue from the annual registration fee of $30 per unit helps pay for the MDE to manage the lead-poisoning prevention program.

The department has a staff of 11 to oversee more than 100,000 rental units, MDE spokeswoman Samantha Kappalman said.

Many of the remaining unregistered properties may no longer be rented or even exist, Tablada said. He suggested that some may have been boarded up and demolished in Baltimore City, which has the state's biggest stock of older dwellings containing lead paint.

Of the remaining properties listed, Tablada said, the MDE might not check those that let their registration lapse more than three years ago because they are beyond the statute of limitations for enforcement action.

Even so, Tablada said, the department is "going to develop a more mechanical, automatic way to go after" property owners who fail to renew their registrations. He noted that starting Jan. 1, 2015, the number of properties required to register will increase substantially, as the state's regulation of lead paint is extended to newer rental units, those built between 1950 and 1978.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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