Credit: Eddie Velazquez | Central Current

Onondaga County will spend an additional $1.5 million to address causes of childhood lead poisoning and will see a new leader in charge of countywide lead operations, County Executive Ryan McMahon announced Tuesday.

The increased funding, which will go toward addressing surfaces in homes that could contribute to the presence of lead in children’s blood, is the latest in a series of investments by the county to try and address an ongoing public health crisis. The county announced last year an $8.7 million investment to widen access to lead remediation certification, increase blood lead levels testing on children, and other property repair initiatives. 

This is the second consecutive year McMahon has announced lead initiatives that will be included in the county’s budget. 

Last year, more than one in 10 children tested for lead in Syracuse showed elevated blood lead levels. The presence of lead in the blood, world health authorities say, attacks the brain and the central nervous system at high levels of exposure, leading to long-term effects such as intellectual disabilities and behavioral disorders. 

Lead safety advocates say a high number of the county’s cases of elevated blood lead levels is due to an aging housing stock built with lead paint, which was not outlawed until the ‘80s. Part of the county’s funding announced Tuesday would go toward renovating some of the houses in areas of need by bolstering an existing partnership with Home HeadQuarters, McMahon said.

Home HeadQuarters, a nonprofit housing and community development agency serving several areas in Upstate New York, will receive $1 million in county funds to replace windows and doors that pose a health risk due to chipping lead paint in. 

That million dollars will be equally split among two different approaches to surface replacement and renovation, said Kerry Quaglia, Home HeadQuarters’ CEO. One will be a proactive approach, he added, where the organization hosts an open applications period for property owners in zip codes that are known for having properties in disrepair. 

“There are areas in the city that are known to be hotbeds of lead paint,” Quaglia said. “It doesn’t matter whether there has been a lead poisoned child in these properties, what we want to do is make the homes safer.”

Quaglia said HomeHeadquarters and the county have not yet coordinated on when the organization will begin taking applications.

The other approach will entail taking referrals for surface replacement at properties where lead has been identified by the county health department.

The other $500,000 pledged by McMahon will go toward the Central New York Community Foundation’s LeadSafe Central New York program, which brings together organizations to find solutions to housing shortages, renovate old housing, and aid in local workforce development efforts.

“Our role is to just be good partners,” said Darrell Buckingham, the foundation’s program officer. “It is to fund things that we believe are going to move us forward as a community.”

McMahon also announced Jessica Vinciguerra would be the county’s new director of lead operations. Vinciguerra previously worked as the city of Syracuse’s lead program administrator.

The county executive said the funding is necessary to avoid the rigidity of federal funding. The U.S. The Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the county $5.6 million in 2019 to remediate lead paint hazards.

So far, those efforts have somewhat stalled due to regulations overseen by HUD.

“We have not been able to re-apply for federal funds because we can’t spend the money fast enough because of some of the red tape involved with that,” McMahon said. 

For instance, the funds need to be spent on remediating households with children. There are also income limits based on HUD yearly assessments.

Martin Skahen, the director of the county’s Community Development Office, said the county has only spent half of the HUD funds so far and will have until next June to fulfill all remediation work scheduled. 

“We have 240 units in some sort of process,” Skahen said.

Skahen added remediation work slowed down due to the state and federal shelter-in-place orders in 2020 stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“I don’t think there is a grantee in the country who did not file for an extension with HUD,” Skahen said.

Another one of the biggest obstacles, McMahon and Skahen noted, is the lack of credentialed contractors. To do remediation work, contractors need to complete a course for renovation, repair or painting project rules drafted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“This is a national issue, it’s not an issue just in Syracuse and Onondaga County,” McMahon said. “If the business case is made, people will come to work, but people who have the certifications have work to do in their own communities.”

The county will host an open house at Erie Materials on Sept. 20, inviting contractors to learn about local business opportunities in lead remediation.

Read more about Syracuse’s lead crisis

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