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Baltimore County to use $60 million in federal aid for social programs, affordable housing, public safety

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. announced Wednesday that he wants to spend $80 million in American Rescue Plan funding to support the county’s coronavirus health response and put another $60 million toward bolstering economic recovery, public safety and social support systems — including millions to expand affordable housing and to roll out a firearms discharge detection system.

It’s the first time the county has publicly announced its priorities for the $160.7 million in federal coronavirus aid passed by Congress and signed into law by President Joe Biden in March. The funding has fewer restrictions than prior government recovery programs, giving jurisdictions more flexibility over how it’s spent. Eligible uses include public health, supplementing lost revenue and infrastructure projects dealing with water, sewer and broadband.

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The money must be spent over the next four years. The $160 million was approved as part of Olszewski’s fiscal 2022 budget, but County Council will have some oversight for parts of Olszewski’s plan, including approval of service agreements, contracts and grants.

Olszewski, a Democrat, said in a statement that the plan “provides a bold, equitable roadmap to address the needs of families, workers, and businesses for years to come.”

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The county aims to put much of its funding — $16 million — toward creating an Affordable Housing Opportunity Fund that would help develop and incentivize the construction of accessible, affordable and mixed-use housing, a persistent issue for county government and developers.

“So many families were faced by housing instability and an eviction crisis,” Olszewski said. “We must do more to strengthen housing stability.”

Baltimore County is under a 2016 agreement with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that requires the county to add a total of 1,000 affordable units by 2027. Last year, the county fell short of its annual goal under the agreement for approving new affordable housing units.

Olszewski’s administration poured millions into eviction prevention amid the pandemic, including $4 million to support its Strategic Targeted Eviction Prevention program — a county partnership with the United Way of Central Maryland — using federal CARES Act coronavirus relief funds. It paid up to nine months of back rent to landlords who agreed to discount the amount owed in return for the payment.

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Olszewski aims to use American Rescue Plan money to acquire property, like hotels, to convert to affordable housing units and to acquire properties whose owners are behind on their taxes to build affordable or mixed-income homes.

He envisions providing subsidies and lump-sum payments to developers who agree to convert some market-rate apartments for affordable use. And he wants to create a trust fund providing grants and low-interest loans to build, acquire and rehabilitate affordable housing projects. The county will need to enact legislation to create such a fund.

Committing $16 million “is a good step,” said Matt Hill, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, “but much more needs to be done” administratively for the county to meet its obligation under its housing agreement.

Hill was among attorneys who represented complainants like the Baltimore County NAACP, which brought the fair housing complaint before HUD that led to the 2016 agreement. Funding alone will do little to advance affordable housing if the county does not remove political barriers that have prevented certain affordable developments from moving forward, like the County Council’s control over zoning and land uses, Hill said.

Using tax-delinquent properties to build affordable apartments is “a long overdue use of a power that many other jurisdictions already use,” Hill said. “It’s a good use of their power under tax foreclosure statutes.”

County Councilman David Marks said he’d like to see money spent on amenities for residents of affordable housing projects, such as a community center for the affordable Dunfield Townhomes in Nottingham.

“There are a lot of supports needed to make affordable housing work,” the Perry Hall Republican said. “Those include transportation, community services, child care.”

On public safety, Olszewski wants to use more than $1 million to implement “a firearms discharge detection and notification system for communities that are experiencing disproportionate levels of violent crime,” much like the ShotSpotter gunfire detection system in Baltimore City. That system has faced criticism over its effectiveness and fairness in some cities.

The detection system would be a pilot project alerting the police to gunfire with location data.

Olszewski is using $3 million in federal aid for a long-term revitalization effort in Essex, which has “consistently faced challenges” of poverty, housing insecurity and opioid abuse that “grew even worse during the pandemic,” he said.

Olszewski also would use more than $911,000 to establish a crisis clinician program within the county’s emergency call center, an initiative he announced earlier this year to divert mental health-related calls for service from police.

Olszewski touted the $26 million the county has given out to hundreds of businesses for coronavirus relief, but said many workplaces and nonprofits weren’t eligible for prior state and federal funding. About $2.5 million of the American Rescue Plan funding is allocated for recovery grants to businesses, nonprofits and community-based organizations serving vulnerable populations such as veterans and low-income residents.

Olszewski’s plan designates $2.1 million to support child care providers.

And $6.2 million in aid is planned to purchase receptacles to dispose of trash, recycling and food waste for single and multifamily homes, part of a work group’s recommended changes to the county’s solid waste system in order to increase recycling rates and divert organic trash from the county’s landfill. Around $6.6 million will go to the Department of Environmental Protection and Sustainability to finish a shoreline and aquatic habitat project along the Patapsco River’s Middle Branch and $4 million would be spent to preserve open space and improve trails throughout the county.

The county used at least $17.7 million of the federal aid as a one-time pay bonus for employees during the pandemic, according to county spokesman Sean Naron.

County residents will get a chance to weigh in on the spending plan as well as how the county should spend the remaining $20 million of the federal coronavirus aid during two virtual hearings, scheduled for Nov. 10 and Nov. 29.

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“I’m glad the public is being given an opportunity to say how it should be spent,” Marks said.

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He said capital projects are where the money should be directed — “one-time spending that isn’t going to balloon our payroll.”

The recommendations came from a panel of Olszewski’s cabinet, which held three meetings between March and April to devise the spending plan.

Baltimore Sun reporter Emily Opilo contributed to this article.

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