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Op-Ed: State best equipped to deal with lead issue

May 22, 2017
Derek Merrin News

The following op-ed written by Rep. Derek Merrin was printed in the Toledo Blade:

For three decades, the Ohio Department of Health has been leading the fight against lead poisoning. It has made progress, but more must be done.

To House Bill 49, the state’s operating budget, I attached an amendment that reaffirms the state health department’s exclusive authority over lead abatement activities throughout the state. The people of Ohio deserve a statewide plan, uniform standards, and fair enforcement to ultimately solve this problem.

I believe current laws must be re-examined to enable the health department to be more proactive rather than addressing lead hazards only after an individual has been poisoned. Also, I am searching for additional funding sources to bolster the health department’s lead safety initiatives and enforcement efforts.

My amendment has drawn criticism that it will nullify the city of Toledo’s lead ordinance. Let’s start with a simple fact: Toledo’s law is unconstitutional. It targets a small minority of property owners and treats them unequally under the law. Toledo’s law applies only to rental properties with one to four units built prior to 1978, but exempts apartment complexes and owner-occupied homes built prior to 1978. Can you imagine Toledo officials convincing a judge that children living in a duplex rental property should be protected differently than children living in a five-unit apartment building?

Toledo’s law is intellectually inconsistent and undercuts its own premise by seeking to protect only a select group of children. All property owners and children should be protected equally under the law.

Rather than treat everyone fairly, Toledo’s elected officials have drawn the public’s ire by essentially exempting their own personal homes from the approximately $400 lead inspection cost and $45 registration fee. And, at least one Toledo official owns an apartment complex, which was purposefully provided an exemption. The media has turned a blind eye to the self-dealing and protectionism by Toledo officials.

With my experience working in real estate, I know Toledo’s law will increase rental rates, depress property values, and likely cause hundreds of homes to be abandoned. The negative impact will be severe, as many investors will decline to invest in Toledo.

The city desperately needs investment and entrepreneurs to provide the capital to turn Toledo’s housing stock around. The “bad landlords” with toxic properties will evade the law, while responsible investors will attempt to comply but will shy away from further investments in the Glass City.

On March 11, The Blade reported the city has 30,000 water service lines made with lead. Toledo is one of many urban cities that has failed to replace its antiquated lead pipelines to ensure safe drinking water. Although city officials have neglected to take care of their own infrastructure, they insist on their home-rule authority and competence to regulate private property. As a former mayor, I know they do not have this authority nor the capacity to execute implementation.

To further erode confidence, Toledo’s ordinance entrusts the Toledo-Lucas County Health Department with managing the new lead regulations. On May 14, The Blade highlighted the local health department’s neglect to notify dozens of families that they were living in lead-contaminated housing ordered vacated by the state. Yes, that’s the same inept, local bureaucracy the city desires to oversee approximately 55,000 rental properties. Even The Blade was forced to admit the local health department “failed our children.” That is why I am advocating lead policies and enforcement be handled by the Ohio Department of Health, which is better equipped to confront this issue head-on.

Lead poisoning is a statewide problem. The Ohio Department of Health continues to be our best option to lead the fight and protect Ohioans. The legislature should do more to equip state officials to proactively identify lead hazards and abate them.

Lead hazards will not quickly vanish, which is why a key component must be educational. Ohioans must know the danger, and parents must understand how to minimize risks for their children. A patchwork of local laws that provides false security is not the answer. A well-funded Ohio Department of Health with highly trained, specialized staff will make the most meaningful impact to secure a lead-safe future for Ohioans.