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‘What about us?’ Lead abatement contractors confront city officials, concerned about their future

MILWAUKEE -- On Feb. 12, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issued a stop work order on lead abatement in Milwaukee that was being funded by a federal grant. Nearly a month later, the contractors who were doing that work are asking, "what about us?"

The contractors met with Milwaukee Health Department officials behind closed doors on Tuesday, March 6. They said they have a lot of unanswered questions.

Contractors involved in the Lead Paint Abatement Program huddled at City Hall for a consensus on their grievances before meeting with Milwaukee Health Department officials. Many said their livelihood and the livelihood of their employees are at stake because of the work stoppage.

"It's been a month that we have no income. I have employees that, I'm about to lose one because he's going to get another job," said Michael Barnes.

Michael Barnes

HUD shut down the federal Lead Hazard Reduction Grant program. The city used the federal money to hire contractors to replace windows -- often the source of the highest concentrations of lead. That left property owners responsible for removing any other lead sources themselves.

"But sometimes that's unsafe, and so we're saying, 'Let's take a pause.' Let's rework the contract, to make sure that contractors, professionals who are involved, can actually finish the work on behalf of the city,'" said Joseph Galvan, HUD's Midwest Regional Director.

Contractors said they did what the city told them to do -- and were ready to argue the point if necessary. But it wasn't necessary.

Lead paint chips on window

"What we have right now is communication. We have new leadership and there's a big change going on in the health department," said Feliz Questell.

Instead, Barnes said there was a focus on complying with HUD mandates.

"They're going to do more than just replace the windows. They're going to soffit, fascia, interior painting, wherever there's a lead hazard, they're going to address it -- which should have been done in the first place," Barnes said.