For Palmer Harvey, a co-founder of the Syracuse Tenants Union, figuring out how to spend a multi-million-dollar government surplus is a no-brainer.

She’d devote the money to addressing matters of housing insecurity.

“We are consistently receiving calls regarding poor housing conditions, unfair rent increases and a lack of affordable housing,” Harvey said. “There is something they can throw $85 million at.”

Harvey has been canvassing door-to-door since 2016, in the city’s North Side, South Side, and West Side to address tenants’ concerns and teach renters about their rights. Those neighborhoods, she said, are rampant with code violations.

Public health advocates and fair housing activists gathered at Columbus Circle in Syracuse on Tuesday, calling for Onondaga County leaders to use a $200 million surplus in funds to improve housing and address child lead poisoning.

To the tune of chants asking for elected leaders to “invest in our communities,” advocates from Families For Lead Freedom Now, Central New York Solidarity Coalition, and Syracuse Tenants Union expressed their discontent with how local lawmakers are planning to spend said surplus. More specifically, advocates honed in on County Executive Ryan McMahon’s plan to spend $85 million on an aquarium at the city’s Inner Harbor.

Mariana Pernia, a Syracuse-based physician and a member of the Central New York Solidarity Coalition, spoke on the impacts of community disinvestment.

“I see that my patients don’t have nearly what they need to get by,” Pernia said.

Pernia referenced the county’s approximate $200 million surplus in funds, which the county’s top fiscal officer recently described as a combination of unexpected sales tax revenue, increases in federal aid, and a healthy fund balance account.

“It is clear to us that people in this county are still living with urgent economic hardships even as the county has a surplus of $200 million,” Pernia said.

In 2020, of all children tested within the city of Syracuse, 9% had an elevated blood lead level greater than or equal to 5 or more micrograms per deciliter, according to data from the Onondaga County Health Department. That number increased to 11% in 2020, according to Families for Lead Freedom Now founder Oceanna Fair.

The consequences of high exposure to lead are grave and can include changes to children’s brain development, reduced attention span and reduced educational attainment, according to the World Health Organization.

Fair, a South Side resident and co-founder of Families for Lead Freedom Now, said her group has had several demands in place for city and county government officials since at least 2021.

Those demands include a return to mass testing of Syracuse residents 6 years or younger for elevated blood lead levels, as well as making the city’s rental registry easier to access and be updated more frequently. Fair also argued the Onondaga County Department of Health should release data on lead poisoning cases sorted by race and ZIP code.

“We need to get it right,” Fair said. “We believe the county should produce a balanced allocation of resources.”

The protestors also called for the county to create a fund for small, often minority-owned contracting firms, to have the upfront capital to conduct lead abatement work under guidelines developed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Contractors would have to pay back grants awarded through this proposed fund, Fair said.

“Our neighborhoods are the way they are by design,” Fair said. “People of color were pushed into neighborhoods like the South Side using governmental tools such as redlining and those neighborhoods were let go. The government allowed child lead poisoning to happen and I expect them to clean it up.”

Got a tip, question or story idea? Contact Central Current at

Follow Eddie Velazquez @ezvelazquez.

Suggested Reading