Jeramey Jannene
City Hall

Outside Firm Auditing City’s Lead Program

Expert hired by Comptroller doing audit council originally wanted done by May 2018.

By - Jul 29th, 2019 12:10 pm
Lead service lines replaced by the Milwaukee Water Works with corrosion control visible in pipe. Image from Milwaukee Water Works.

Lead service lines replaced by the Milwaukee Water Works with corrosion control visible in pipe. Image from Milwaukee Water Works.

The city comptroller’s office has brought in an outside firm to audit the Milwaukee Health Department‘s lead abatement programs.

The non-profit Public Health Foundation won a request-for-proposals bid to work with the health department. The organization, said president Ron Bialek, has worked with over 500 such departments at all levels of government in its approximately 50 years of operation. It has been working with the city since early May, but gave its first public update in July, more than a year after the Common Council called for an audit.

In February 2018, the council passed a file directing the comptroller’s office to conduct an audit after Mayor Tom Barrett announced the resignation of Health Commissioner Bevan K. Baker and disclosed serious issues with the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program. The audit was to be completed in 90 days.

“It is a complicated issue and we wanted to have this done correctly,” said independently elected City of Milwaukee Comptroller Martin Matson at a July meeting of the Public Safety & Health Committee. “The reality is it just took us a very, very long time to get to this.” A letter from Matson to the council said the original timeline was not “administratively feasible.” The council appropriated $250,000 for the effort, almost all of which will now go to the foundation.

“What we really want to focus on is looking at the recommendations that have been made in various audits, the current status, and then work with the health department to look for opportunities for continuous improvements,” said Bialek. The audit team is being led by Matthew Stefanak, who led the Mahoning County health department in Ohio for 25 years. Bialek said Stefanak oversaw a 95 percent reduction in lead poisoning in Youngstown and other Mahoning County communities.

“For years we have been hearing numbers and then when the curtain was pulled back there were some serious issues,” said Alderman Jose G. Perez. “I get the report. I get the numbers. The council is very leery of that. We want more than stats and numbers.”

The audit will include a step-by-step review of everything that happens from when a child is found to have elevated lead levels in their blood to the closing of the case. “Often what’s written might vary from what’s actually occurring in the field,” said Bialek.

‘We would expect and anticipate that in the long term there will be an improved program and a program that your community can be proud of,” said Bialek.

“During our very first visit, it was very apparent to us that you have committed, you have dedicated, you have competent individuals,” said Bialek with Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik at his side. “With the leadership they have in the agency you can look forward to continued progress in the program.”

A final report is expected in early April 2020.

Bialek said issues that require immediate attention will be introduced before the final report. Committee chair Ald. Robert Donovan said that would be welcomed.

“I will simply say there is a level of frustration on the part of, I suspect, a lot of people with regard to how long this is taking and, quite frankly again, the deceit that had gone on previously in bringing these problems forward to the council. It seemed every meeting the council had with these issues we were uncovering one scandal after another,” said Donovan. “We wish you the best of luck. Hopefully we, the council and the city, can get some closure on the entire lead issue.”

Milwaukee Versus Flint

Ald. Mark Borkowski asked if the audit team had experience with Flint, Michigan’s water problems, Bialek said that members of the team have studied the problem. “What is occurring in Milwaukee in my belief is quite different,” said Bialek.

Flint, under state direction, changed its water source and as a result saw a significant spike in lead water readings because of corrosion caused from switching sources. Former Milwaukee Water Works superintendent Jennifer Gonda said in January 2018 Flint saw readings in excessive of 5,000 parts per billion (pbb), the Environmental Protection Agency‘s definition of “toxic waste”, while Milwaukee has never had a recorded measurement in excess of 130 pbb. That would mean Flint’s readings were 138 times higher than in Milwaukee. Virginia Tech researchers found a Flint home to have a reading in excess of 13,000 ppb.

Borkowski said the situations clearly weren’t an apples-to-apples comparison, but added this: “Flint didn’t happen overnight and Milwaukee didn’t happen overnight. With all due respect I feel like I’m getting bamboozled.”

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Related Legislation: File 190511

Categories: City Hall, Health, Politics

One thought on “City Hall: Outside Firm Auditing City’s Lead Program”

  1. Dennis Grzezinski says:

    At the rate that the City is replacing lead laterals, it is likely to take 70 years or more to deal with the lead pipes in the ground, at a cost of 100s of millions of dollars. The immediate health risks to people living in homes with lead laterals could be protected against, probably by the end of 2020, if a few million dollars were spent to provide and install lead filters in the affected kitchens — but this would require prompt action to train a workforce of community members to distribute and install the filters, and a widespread education program to educate children, parents, and grandparents about the need to drink and cook only using water from the filters. I hope the “audit” will hasten, rather than delay, the day when the city, perhaps with support from the philanthropic or corporate communities, embarks on a program to deal with this problem now, not over the next couple of generations. It is shameful that the Wisconsin legislature deleted funds from Governor Evers’ budget that would have funded a significant effort to deal with the existing lead laterals, but that is not a reason to delay undertaking a massive filter installation program.

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