Baltimore City Council got its first chance to weigh in publicly on how the city’s $641 million in American Rescue Plan funding should be spent and urged city officials to eliminate backlogs for existing city services, as well as equitably allocate the money.
The city’s new Office of Recovery Programs is responsible for reviewing applications and distributing the funding allocated to the city by Congress earlier this year as part of a coronavirus relief package. The application process in Baltimore is underway both for city agencies and nonprofit organizations, but no recipients have been announced, despite the first half of the funding arriving in May.
City Council has little authority over the distribution, which has been controlled by the administration of Democratic Mayor Brandon Scott. But the board recently introduced legislation calling for quarterly and annual updates on the spending process. The legislation is pending, but the Ways and Means Committee held the first hearing Tuesday.
The city’s top officials have lobbied for ARP money to be used for “transformative” projects. Democratic Council President Nick Mosby reiterated that goal, saying the funding needed to be spent to ensure “the biggest return on investment for communities that have been underserved for far too long.”
But several of Mosby’s fellow council members, all Democrats, argued there are basic city services with yearslong backlogs that could be drastically improved with the funding.
Councilman Eric Costello, who represents an area of South Baltimore as well as downtown, said he will walk away from the process frustrated if the city doesn’t figure out a way to better deliver basic services.
“When it takes seven years to get a tree trimmed, that’s a problem,” he said. “This stream of money is an incredible opportunity to not overthink and not recreate the wheel and to fix things we’re already doing.”
Council Vice President Sharon Green Middleton concurred. The biggest issue in her Northwest Baltimore district is illegal dumping, she said. But city officials have struggled to get their arms around it and fine violators.
“There’s a desperate need for cameras,” she said. “We have to find a way ... to make sure we are catching them and watching them.”
Costello asked whether the city has a prioritized list of backlogs in core services. Officials at the hearing were unable to provide one. The councilman also asked whose job it is to propose ARP funding to cover such backlogs. Budget Director Bob Cenname said it was his responsibility to bring such issues to the mayor and chief administrator.
“I’m glad Director Cenname is stepping up and saying, ‘Hey, I’m that person,’ but I don’t like that there’s one person,” said Councilwoman Danielle McCray, who represents East Baltimore. “I feel the administration should have this stuff identified. We don’t have street sweeping. Bulk trash is modified. We should know right now some of these funds should be going to getting our services back online.”
The application process created by the Office of Recovery Programs is largely agency driven. Agency leaders were asked to submit proposals for funding of at least $250,000. Staff members have begun reviewing proposals first to determine that they are eligible and then scoring them with a rubric that includes the public good they will generate, risk factors, performance measures and the project’s impact on equity. Equity is weighted most heavily.
Several council members emphasized the importance of equity in the application review process. Mosby asked how staff reviewing applications have been trained to understand what equity means.
Shamiah Kerney, head of the Office of Recovery Programs, said staff are instructed to weigh how a proposal would help underserved communities. The office is also talking to applicants about how to track the outcomes of their projects by neighborhood, gender, race and other statistics to assess equitable outcomes, she said.
“I am keenly aware that we can’t just talk about equity,” she said. “We have to show our return on investment. The way we establish performance measures is part of that process.”
Mosby said he had a “major concern” about whether applicants are “going to do the leg work in communicating what equity looks like.”
“We talk about it (equity) in the city a lot today, but we have actually not come full circle to implement it in regular operations of city government,” he said.
Mosby also objected to a nonprofit representative serving on the panel that reviews nonprofit applications for ARP funding. The group should be made up of experts on equity and inclusion, he said.
The first announcements about ARP funding recipients will come later this month, city officials said.