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Milwaukee's City Hall Echoes With Lead Contamination Concerns

Susan Bence
Milwaukee Public Radio
Nearly 80 people gathered inside the city hall rotunda Wednesday to send city leaders a message.

The topic of lead contamination continues to consume Milwaukee leaders. The Milwaukee Health Department is under scrutiny for mismanagement of its lead paint abatement program. And, at the same time, community pressure for a comprehensive plan seems to be mounting.

Wednesday morning at a meeting of the Public Works Committee, Alderman Tony Zielinski pushed for a companion strategy. “Key components of the legislation include inserts going out with the water bill quarterly as opposed to semiannually and that would provide educational material about lead," he said.

But he offered the committee more than demands. Zielinski found a potential source of funding. He asked Sherrie Tussler to explain.

Tussler is no stranger to Milwaukee’s lead conversation. She leads Hunger Task Force and helped created mulit-organization task force that is promoting the role nutrition can play in mitigating the impact of lead contamination.

Tussler’s own agency is funded by SNAP education, which comes from the USDA. “It is intended to promote healthy lifestyles and healthy eating for people who receive food share,” Tussler explained.

She learned about a pot of funding that Milwaukee might tap into “from a prior federal fiscal year - $3.9 million to be exact – that could be applied to lead education in Milwaukee."

Committee members including Ald. Nick Kovac seemed taken aback by offers rather than demands.”So you’d be applying for up to 3.9 million or a portion of it,” he asked.

“We’re still working on the total budget, we have until Friday to put it together. We’d probably be applying for somewhere between $1.5 and 2 million.” Tussler added, “We are already a SNAP-funded grantee, so this is an amendment to a current contract and not an application process.”

While committee members mulled over how many lead awareness inserts should be mailed and the message they should include, Tussler said her strategy includes a yearlong door-to-door campaign.
“Where people will go out and pound on the doors of homes with lead service laterals and give them information."

Committee members asked who would do that work. “We are working right now with the Dominican Center, Metcalfe Park, Milwaukee Christian Center, Northside CDC and FLAC,” Tussler replied.

With the deadline coming up Friday, Tussler said there’s not much time to apply. “What we would need by Friday would be a letter of commitment from the Milwaukee Water Works and a budget."

That would have to come from Water Works Superintendent Jennifer Gonda, who wasn’t doing cartwheels over the project. “I don’t generally write letters of support for grants, that’s been my personal/professional policy. I usually ask the elected officials to do that.” Gonda added, “I’m taking a look at it.”

Gonda said she's planning a variety of methods to reach city residents this year:

Credit Milwaukee Water Works
Credit Susan Bence / Milwaukee Public Radio
Milwaukee Public Radio

But people who gathered at City Hall late Wednesday afternoon don’t plan to wait for the water works strategy to unfold.

A dozen organizations including social and political action groups demanded city leaders come up with lead contamination solutions now.

Credit Susan Bence
North Division High School student Isaiah is a member of Youth Rising Up.

Isaiah, a North Division High School student, was one of the people who spoke. “We need every citizen to rise up. It is a human right to have clean water,” he said.

Thursday morning, another round of debate will likely erupt inside city hall. The public safety and health committee will consider a proposal calling for stepped up blood lead level testing for children, with an eye on the risks of lead in drinking water.

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