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Baltimore City Council passes bill demanding oversight of city’s federal coronavirus recovery spending

The Baltimore City Council passed a bill Monday aimed at giving itself additional oversight in the spending of federal coronavirus recovery money.

The bill, which was recommended favorably last week by the City Council’s Ways and Means Committee over objections from officials in Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration, was fast-tracked by the council Monday — meaning two votes were taken on the same night. The legislation was passed unanimously by the 15-member council.

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Baltimore officials are in the midst of figuring out how to spend $641 million allocated to the city by the federal American Rescue Plan, designed to help cities recover from the pandemic. The city has created the Office of Recovery Programs, with a 10-member staff, to assess applications for funding submitted by city agencies as well as qualified nonprofits.

The City Council’s bill, sponsored by Council President Nick Mosby, would require city officials to provide reports to the council on a monthly, quarterly and annual basis about how the money is being spent. The monthly reports must include data about how the funds have increased the effectiveness and “broadened the reach” of city government services, according to the legislation. Data also has been requested about how the spending has made government more efficient and sustainable.

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In a news release Monday, Mosby said the City Council hastened its consideration of the bill as Scott began rolling out announcements about the early rounds of ARP spending. Thus far, $130 million has been allocated — $80 million for health expenses related to the pandemic, announced Oct. 20, and $50 million for violence prevention initiatives, unveiled last week.

“To date, the public has received little specifics on how these planned expenditures will result in positive impacts on the lives of our residents and the conditions in our communities,” Mosby’s news release stated.

Scott‘s spokesman Cal Harris said Monday that the mayor supports the “intent” of the legislation, although he would not say whether the mayor will sign the bill.

“The mayor is focused on delivering regular, transparent updates to measure progress and performance for Baltimore residents,” Harris said.

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The legislation also requires monthly reporting based on metrics including equity, population growth, labor and employment, and the growth of women- and minority-owned businesses.

Before the passage of the City Council’s bill, Scott, who has authority over the money, agreed to provide quarterly updates on the spending to the City Council. But his staff objected to the monthly requirement during a committee hearing last week, arguing the reports would be labor-intensive for staff and “not meaningful” for such short periods of time.

The data will change drastically week-to-week and month-to-month, said Bob Cenname, the city’s budget director, at the time.

Members of the council’s Ways and Means Committee voted 5-1 with one abstention to move the bill forward favorably last week after rejecting several amendments proposed by administration officials. The committee also proceeded despite objections raised by Councilmen Ryan Dorsey and Kristerfer Burnett about the lack of public notice for the bill’s hearing. The 9:59 a.m. committee meeting was not publicized until the night before.

Mosby argued the bill passed Monday “also meets a resounding call from the council” to spend the ARP funding on improving city services.

During the council’s first public briefing on the spending in early October, several members pleaded with officials to use the money to help clear backlogs in city services that are yearslong and exacerbated by staffing issues during the pandemic.

“When it takes seven years to get a tree trimmed, that’s a problem,” Councilman Eric Costello said at the time. “This stream of money is an incredible opportunity to not overthink and not recreate the wheel and to fix things we’re already doing.”

Mosby and Scott, however, have both spoken previously about how the funding should be used in “transformative” or “life-changing” ways.

Scott said earlier this year he plans to prioritize spending that puts Baltimoreans to work, that helps businesses recover from the pandemic and that invests in neighborhoods that have been “left out due to inequitable policies of the past.”

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