City fiscal analysts informed Mayor Martin O'Malley and Baltimore legislators about the loss of $375,000 in funding during meetings yesterday. The money paid for city employees to enforce compliance with lead-paint regulations.
"In the 'year of the child' when lead paint, we're told, is a top priority, the governor has cut our budget," O'Malley said. "We're trying to work that out."
Ehrlich administration officials confirmed that the city's funds were cut, but said $147,000 of the money was transferred to the Maryland Department of the Environment. That agency will perform similar enforcement duties statewide and for less money, the governor's office said.
"Lead-paint poisoning isn't an age issue or a geographic issue," said Shareese N. DeLeaver, an Ehrlich spokeswoman. "It's a statewide issue. MDE will absorb the responsibility."
On Tuesday, Ehrlich unveiled an initiative to combat lead poisoning and pledged that Maryland would join a nationwide effort to end the problem by 2010.
The governor said he would propose legislation to require earlier action to treat children with lead poisoning and to reduce lead hazards in housing once a child has been poisoned - steps that children's advocates applaud.
But critics say the cut in city funding raises questions about Ehrlich's commitment.
"Statewide, $147,000? That's nothing," said Dr. Peter Beilenson, the city health commissioner.
Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, called the cut to the city "disappointing," but said she is reviewing the full budget to get a clearer understanding of exactly how much Ehrlich is spending on the lead-paint issue. The General Assembly cannot add money to his budget.
"Any decline in childhood lead-poisoning funding at all would be going in the wrong direction," Norton said. "We need to look at the numbers at see what the facts are."
Ehrlich's legislative proposal would lower the lead level in a child's blood that triggers notices to a landlord of a need to address lead-paint problems. The bill also would lower the blood-lead level that requires a landlord to pay for medical treatment and relocation expenses for poisoned children.
For notification to landlords, the trigger would drop from 15 parts per billion of lead in the blood to 10 parts per billion. Landlords could be required to offer money for treatment and possible relocation when children have levels of 15 parts per billion, down from the current standard of 20.
The legislation could significantly increase the workload of enforcement personnel.
In 2003, testing identified 259 children with blood levels of 20 parts per billion or higher. Another 331 had levels in the 15-to-19 range - a group that would be covered under the governor's legislation.
Lawmakers and children's advocates said the budget cut will only hurt what they see as a strong step forward in remedying lead poisoning.
"We definitely need that money in there," said Del. Nathaniel T. Oaks, a Baltimore Democrat who has been an advocate in the fight against lead poisoning.