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State of the City address highlighted by battle against lead issues

Posted at 1:01 PM, Feb 26, 2018
and last updated 2018-02-26 14:01:01-05

Mayor Tom Barrett held his annual State of the City address Monday at the Northwestern Mutual Building. 

The Mayor focused on the future of Milwaukee saying it's promising. He says, one of the focal points of a successful future for the city is the children and their health. 

Barrett says lead levels have decreased dramatically in the city over the last 15 years. Mayor Barrett says children testing with lead levels higher than 10 µg/dL have decreased by 90 percent and children testing with 5 µg/dL are down 70 percent. 

"I want the people in our community to know, this is an issue I've taken seriously, not only since I've been a mayor but back to my days in Congress and we've made some progress," Barrett said. "Have there been bumps in the road with the health department? Absolutely, yes. Did we cover those up? Absolutely not. We immediately brought those to the public's attention and we got in place, a plan to move forward."

Barrett referencing how the Health Department handled the lead notification process in late 2017. The issue resulted in former Health Commissioner Bevan Baker resigning and an investigation into the department. Now, Barrett says they're moving forward to ensure the safety of children in the city. 

"This is not an issue resolved overnight," Barrett said. "It's going to be hundreds of millions of dollars and we know that. I want the people in this community to know, day and night, I'm looking for sources of revenue to pay for this. It's going to take a considerable period of time but you got to have someone swinging the bat. There is no question, I'm out here swinging the bat trying to get revenue from the state, federal, customers, anywhere I can so we can deal with this issue."

One of the areas of revenue is from the water agreement with Waukesha. Milwaukee won a bid to sell water from Lake Michigan to the City of Waukesha and, as a result, Waukesha will be paying $2.5 million to Milwaukee for infrastructure improvements. Barrett says all of this money will go to infrastructure improvements around the lead issue. A drop in the bucket, but a start.

"This is a daunting challenge for a lot of communities," Barrett said. "We have not backed down. We've embraced the challenge and are moving forward on it."

Members of the Common Council were pleased with how the Mayor tackled the lead issue. 

"I think it's rising on the priority," Ashanti Hamilton, Common Council President said. "One of the things we want to tackle first. Good to hear the mayor say something about it in the State of the City. It can be eliminated but you need to be able to do it in a multi-faceted way. That's why we've called on the state to help in this effort. They stepped up to the table with the passage of [Leading on Lead Act] to try and help homeowners be able to cover their portion with being able to replace lead service lines."

But it's deeper than the water. Barrett says it's as important to replace lead paint in homes and they're addressing that too.

"This needs to be tackled from a number of different prongs," Cavalier Johnson, (D) 2nd District said. "The Mayor talked about it during his speech. The majority of lead poisoning comes from the exposure to lead paint. We can't let that escape. Lead paint is the real culprit. Lead laterals are an important issue and we should tackle those too but we need to not lose sight that lead paint is what is really causing spikes in our kids."

"In the United States, half a million children each year are considered lead poisoned," Barrett said. "Three thousand of those right here in Milwaukee. Our lead rates are too high, and that's why I have been focused on reducing those numbers since before I became Mayor. Along with my concern about lead laterals, I'm also very aware that the greatest lead threat to our children stems from the insidious presence of old lead paint."

Barrett says a permanent Health Commissioner should be selected in a few months after a name is given to the Common Council later this spring.