The members of the Baltimore City Council kicked off a week of budget hearings Tuesday with inquiries about the city’s American Rescue Plan spending, a topic that the group has scrutinized repeatedly.
Over the course of several hours, council members questioned whether any of the city’s backlogged or stalled services will be restored by the funds, expressed concern about the various agencies that are handing out the money and pressed for answers about how the remaining money will be spent.
The $641 million allocation, received from the federal government for coronavirus relief, is controlled by Mayor Brandon Scott rather than the city’s legislative arm. But that power imbalance has done little to discourage council members’ interest in the funds. Legislation passed last year demanded reporting on spending of the ARPA funds to the City Council on a monthly, quarterly and annual basis.
Earlier this month, City Council members lamented the slow rollout of those funds to local nonprofit organizations. The application process closed in December for nonprofits seeking a slice of the allocation, but funding has yet to be awarded to most of the nonprofits that applied. At the time, council members raised concerns about a lack of communication with applicants denied funding.
The relationship is so tense between the City Council and the Office of Recovery Programs, created to distribute the funds, that Shamiah Kerney, the office’s director, opened Tuesday’s hearing by speaking directly to city residents in an effort to dispel the “negative tone and tenor” surrounding her office.
“Please do not settle on secondhand information based on feelings and opinion about the use of these funds or misinformation and mischaracterization that are developed to fit a narrative,” she said.
Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer, who has been outspoken about the funding, questioned Tuesday how much has been used thus far to reduce backlogs in city services. Schleifer cited persistent problems such as the city’s move to reduce recycling pickup to every other week in January due to staffing issues and a multiyear backlog for city tree services and stump grinding.
About $480 million has been allocated thus far from the city’s ARPA funds — about three-quarters of the total pot.
“There will be an allocation for services that have been slowed,” Kerney said of future spending.
“Of the 480 allocated?” Schleifer asked.
“None at this time,” Kerney said.
Has any been allocated for recycling or street sweeping, Schleifer asked.
“None to date,” Kerney replied.
Schleifer’s line of questioning followed a more direct complaint issued Tuesday morning as City Administrator Chris Shorter addressed the City Council.
“There are basic city functions the city taxpayers are paying for and aren’t getting,” Schleifer said. “I don’t know how to respond to them when they see $50 million here or $60 million there, and we’re not doing the basic function of picking up recycling.”
Much of Baltimore’s American Rescue Plan money has been allocated in broad swaths to various city agencies: $100 million for improving housing, $80 million for coronavirus relief, $75 million pledged to reduce homelessness and $55 million for workforce development and business support, among other projects.
Councilman Zeke Cohen said he has fielded concerns from organizations that were told they would not receive funding. When they asked why they were rejected, the explanation from the Office of Recovery Programs was “a little wobbly,” he said.
“There weren’t great metrics or clarity of response,” Cohen added.
Kerney said frustration should be expected from organizations that don’t receive funding. The office has been responding to rejected applicants via email with a synopsis of where their applications were lacking, she said.
Cohen questioned whether applicants are being redirected to other agencies within city government that do similar work and may have their own American Rescue Plan funds to offer.
Kerney said that information is available on the office’s website. Cohen said he had been personally redirecting applicants to other offices.
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“I think it would be relatively easy for your office to do,” he said.
Schleifer asked what the “game plan” is for the remaining funds yet to be allocated.
Shorter said the city is currently “overbooked” with requests for funding. The remaining allocations will be based on requests received and would be distributed in the most “balanced way possible,” he said.
“It certainly won’t be a mystery as we begin to make those decisions,” he added.
Schleifer asked whether there is an additional role for the City Council in assisting with the decisions.
Council members were given a specified number of “endorsements” earlier in the selection process that they could use to support various applications for the funding.
“It may look like $160 million still remains,” Shorter said. “What I will say is we have requests that far exceed that number, so we are still in a bit of a crunch. We have a lot of requests that are legitimate requests for funds, and we have some difficult decisions in the coming weeks and months.”