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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Milwaukee Health Department Headaches Seem Never-Ending

Susan Bence
Paul Biedrzyski testified before the Board of City Service Commissioners on Thursday.

The Milwaukee Health Department is trying to lift a heavy cloud of mismanagement and community mistrust that lingers months after residents learned the agency failed to follow up with families of children who had been poisoned.

Jeanette Kowalik, who replaced long-time Health Commissioner Bevan Baker, is about 12 weeks into a huge overhaul of the agency.

READ: Common Council Unanimously Approves New Milwaukee Health Commissioner

Two weeks ago, Kowalik told members of the city’s Steering and Rules Committee she was in the process of sweeping away what she called the Milwaukee Health Department’s “swiss cheese policies” — holes in how the department was run.

Credit Susan Bence
Health Commissioner Jeanette Kowalik at the Nov. 16 meeting of the Steering & Rules Committee.

“We had things that weren’t updated for a long time, things that were lost when people left the health department. So, we wanted to make sure that we are addressing this broad-based," she said.  "But more specifically the lead program because that is definitely a huge challenge and something that we need to continue to do so that we can make sure the program is operating at optimal level."

But reaching top performance won’t come easy.

Kowalik told committee members the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program is operating with less than a full staff — with 11 vacancies.

Meanwhile, the department had more than 500 open cases of children whose tests showed elevated blood lead levels.

Kowalik says catching up while creating a customer service-oriented agency will take time. But the new health commissioner said her department was able to take some small steps, quickly — such as creating a phone routing and voicemail system.

“Something as small as creating a phone tree is something that we did to better accommodate constituents so that they’re able to [find] whatever they’re looking for and not sit in a dead space,” Kowalik said.

Kowalik says she’ll be providing a progress report on the childhood lead poisoning prevention program to the Common Council every two weeks.

Examining The Past

While Kowalik looks forward, others continue to sort out the health department’s troubled past. Thursday the Board of City Service Commissioners listened to the appeal of one health department employee who’s fighting his discharge.

Richard Gaeta had been a key member of Milwaukee’s lead-poisoning prevention program. He was fired in late August on grounds of mismanagement.

Gaeta’s appeal brought a high-ranking health department retiree, Paul Biedrzycki, to the table.

He worked in the department from 1983 until he retired as director of disease control and environmental health in 2017. The childhood lead poisoning prevention program fell under his purview.

Biedrzycki was subpoenaed to testify before the committee considering Gaeta's appeal. He was asked a broad range of questions about the program. He cited ongoing challenges in hiring and retaining qualified lead risk assessors and financial pressure attached to such a massive program.

“Sustaining such a model requires a constant influx of funding and money and I did have concerns about a reliance solely on grant funding, federal grant funding for any program within the health department. Knowing that as it diminished or became more competitive then the capacity and capability within the program would be compromised,” Biedrzycki said.

As for Richard Gaeta, Biedrzycki had little to offer, saying they had only sporadic contact.

When Gaeta’s attorney Paul Schinner asked, "Was anything negative said about Mr. Gaeta’s performance?”, Biedrzycki responded simply, “Not that I recall.”

Richard Gaeta will have a chance to speak for himself Friday morning as his appeal continues.

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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