The Times, Trenton

Lead Abatement Effort Faces Cuts

The Times of Trenton — Monday, January 12, 2009

BY MEIR RINDE

A crucial state program that fights lead poisoning in children is slated for a $6 million cut as Gov. Corzine seeks billions in budget savings, but the state says health advocates have no reason for concern.

As with many of the other programs facing cuts, the lowered budget for the Lead Hazard Assistance Fund still leaves it enough money to continue doing its work, Treasury spokesman Tom Bell said. Trenton is particularly interested in lead abatement as many homes are afflicted with aging paint that contains lead and is a great hazard to residents.

Bell said $9 million remains in the fund, which provides loans of up to $10,000 to qualified homeowners so they can remove lead hazards from their homes.

High blood levels resulting from exposure to lead paint have been linked to brain damage and behavioral problems in children.

In Trenton, tests of dust in 885 homes by the nonprofit Isles Inc. showed 42 percent exceed federal lead standards and 60 percent are above the standard set by the National Center for Healthy Homes.

Despite the state's assurances, NJ Citizen Action program director James Walsh said any budget reduction is a bad idea because more should be spent on publicizing the availability of assistance.

"It's an extremely important program," said Walsh, whose organization helps people apply for loans. "We've actually been pushing them to put more money into the program to let homeowners know about it."

Corzine put forward $821 million in budget reductions last week to help close an estimated $2.1 billion shortfall in the current fiscal year.

The governor also wants to use $275 million of the state's surplus, $500 million from the long term debt reduction fund, a $208 million surplus from closing out the prior fiscal year budget and $300 million from an anticipated federal stimulus package.

Some $15 million of the budget reductions would come from municipal aid and almost $84 million from education programs. But the state anticipates that schools and towns will not need the money because they will defer making payments into their pension funds.

"Most of the items appear to be reductions in spending in areas that don't involve direct aid to public schools," said Frank Belluscio, spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association "There appears to be minimal if any impact on the classroom."

The Legislature failed to take up legislation in December to allow the deferral of pension payments, but Corzine continues to push for the measure.

That means the size of cuts to state aid to municipalities could still change, Bell said.

"Obviously, the legislation would impact (local) budgets, in their favor," he said. "Any decision on that is going to wait until we see what will happen with pension deferral."

Reducing the budget for extraordinary aid to municipalities would leave pension deferral as one of the least unpalatable options for towns like Hamilton that face financial difficulties.

The township is awaiting word on its application for nearly $1.5 million in extraordinary aid. Thanks to the political battle over pension deferral, it has been unable to finalize its budget.

About 38 other municipalities with fiscal-year budgets are in the same position, according to the New Jersey League of Municipalities.

"We've done everything by the book, applied appropriately and on time, and now they're playing games with us," Hamilton Councilman Dennis Pone said. "To me it reeks of politics."

Pone dislikes the pension holiday because it would leave towns with even bigger pension obligations in future years. But Hamilton will defer payments if it has to, and he just wants the state to hurry up and decide, he said.

"I recognize the state is in a lot of trouble financially and I know that's where this stems from," he said. "But it kind of galls me that we finally get everything on track, and this is the way we're rewarded."

Also of concern is the state budget for the next fiscal year, which begins in July.

Belluscio said the state faces a budget hole for 2010 twice as large as the current deficit, and he will be watching Corzine's State of the State address next Tuesday for clues about future cuts.

Copyright 2009 The Times of Trenton

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