Vowing to end the scourge of childhood lead poisoning in Maryland, Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley pledged yesterday to pour $50 million over the next three years into a major new effort to rid the city of dilapidated housing contaminated with lead-based paint.
The governor and mayor outlined a three-pronged campaign at a crowded State House news conference, promising to strengthen enforcement of laws, expand testing of children and provide property owners with grants to eliminate lead-paint hazards from apartments and homes.
"Let us not mince words: Our children are suffering," said Glendening, who added that he will ask the General Assembly to authorize $5.2 million a year in new state funds for the effort. The money would be added to the $5.6 million in state and federal funds now being spent on the problem.
"We are going to attack this problem more aggressively, more effectively and more efficiently than we ever have in the past," said O'Malley.
The city will earmark $6 million in federal funds for the lead effort this year and will attempt to continue that level of funding for the next two years, the mayor said.
Both officials said they were moved to act by a series of articles in The Sun that revealed how children are being systematically poisoned in decrepit rowhouses held in corporate shells by slum landlords, some of whom have been implicated in dozens of cases.
In announcing the plan, the governor mentioned Kyle Bridges, a Baltimore 12-year-old whose inability to read and do math is attributed in part to his repeated lead poisoning in a succession of east- side rental homes.
"When we know what the problem is and what must be done, how can we turn our back on Kyle and all the other children who suffer along with him?" the governor asked. "We, all of us, have a moral obligation to come together and begin to solve this problem."
Joining the two at the news conference was U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol M. Browner, who promised federal help publicizing lead hazards in Maryland and enforcing the federal law requiring disclosure of the presence of lead paint whenever a housing unit changes hands.
"It is my strong hope that the day will come when we will all be able to say, 'Lead poisoning? That was a problem of the past,' " Browner said.
More than 7,000 children are exposed to lead paint dust and chips in Baltimore each year, and 1,200 are poisoned, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
They account for about 85 percent of the cases reported in the state annually, placing Baltimore among the most perilous cities in the nation for children, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Most of the victims are poor, black children living in the inner-city neighborhoods Park Heights, Sandtown-Winchester and Middle East.
More than two of every five children poisoned statewide come from those neighborhoods, health department records show. But little has been done to target the city and state enforcement efforts there until now.
Glendening and O'Malley pledged to focus their immediate prevention and cleanup efforts on those neighborhoods, though the governor said enforcement would be strengthened statewide.
Under their plan, an extra $1 million a year would be spent on enforcement. The money would allow the state to hire five inspectors, triple the number of homes checked and employ two assistant attorneys general to triple the numbers of violators prosecuted.
The money also would allow the city to hire as many as six inspectors, doubling the current staff, according to Peter L. Beilenson, the city health commissioner.
The state's commitment of $3.5 million a year to remove lead-paint hazards would provide grants of up to $8,500 to landlords or homeowners in the three targeted neighborhoods. Landlords would have to pay 20 percent of the abatement costs. Homeowners would be eligible for full state funding.
The abatement money should remove lead-paint hazards from 400 rental units a year in the three neighborhoods, said Raymond A. Skinner, state housing secretary. His agency has financed cleanups of 500 homes citywide in the past five years.
Maryland's lead-paint law is generally considered one of the strictest in the nation, but the state hasn't provided adequate funds to enforce it.
The heart of the law is a requirement that landlords register their properties with the state Department of the Environment, clean up lead-paint hazards and submit to safety inspections before renting to families with children.
But with only five state inspectors and one part-time prosecutor to enforce the law, compliance has lagged far behind what was envisioned by lawmakers.
Fewer than half of the rental units in the state are registered, fewer than 100 scofflaw landlords are prosecuted annually, and eight of 10 children poisoned are found to be living in uncertified houses.
In Baltimore, where the city Health Department acts on the state environmental agency's behalf, the picture is much the same.
Operating on a budget of less than $1 million a year, six inspectors have struggled to police nearly 70,000 rental units built before 1951 -- when lead paint was banned in the city -- without a prosecutor assigned to their cases until recently.
Glendening and O'Malley said money alone will not solve the problem. They called for legislation and regulations to help alert the public to lead-poisoning hazards and to curb abuses by landlords.
O'Malley said the city will seek state legislation requiring that a notice be posted in every rental unit built before 1950 stating that it complies with the state law. The notices would assure tenants that cleanups required by law have been performed.
The city will introduce a bill aimed at preventing landlords from evading cleanup orders. Denise Duval, assistant city housing commissioner, said some landlords are transferring properties to corporations, then denying responsibility for abating lead-paint hazards.
Those bills will join a flurry of proposals being prepared in Annapolis, including legislation that would hold paint manufacturers responsible and provide abatement tax credits for homeowners and landlords.
Yesterday's announcement drew praise from legislators and advocates for children's health. Spokesmen for Baltimore's largest landlords endorsed the calls for tougher enforcement of existing laws.
"It shows a commitment from the governor's office that was super and a commitment and energy level from the mayor that we haven't seen in a while," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat.
"It's a tremendous first step," said Ruth Ann Norton, director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning. Her group has proposed an $80 million program aimed at eliminating lead poisoning statewide in the next 20 years. Glendening has directed a state task force to study that proposal.
"We agreed to the law, and we think everybody should be doing it," said Charles A. Piccinini, a board member of the Property Owners of Greater Baltimore, which represents most of the city's largest landlords. "The ones that aren't should be sought out and fined."
"It's a good thing, what the governor did today," said Bessie Smith, 50, Kyle Bridges' grandmother.
"Maybe now, people will take this problem seriously. Maybe it will help all the sick children of Baltimore. "