Outside Firm Auditing City’s Lead Program
Expert hired by Comptroller doing audit council originally wanted done by May 2018.
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.
“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
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