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Baltimore To Create 10-Person Office To Distribute $640 Million Of American Rescue Plan Funds

P. Kenneth Burns

While Mayor Brandon Scott has not yet announced how Baltimore will spend the vast majority of $640 million in American Rescue Plan funding, his administration is creating an office to oversee the distribution of the money.

A 10-person Office of Recovery Programs will use a rubric that grades a proposed project’s cost, risk and equity, among other factors, city finance officials said at a hearing earlier this month. The scoring system will weigh a project’s equity impact the most heavily. The city will spend $10 million of ARP funds to operate the office, to be led by a Chief Recovery Officer, through 2025. The mayor has not yet named the members of the office.

“We want to be judicious about our spending, but also swift when applicable to critical areas and impacted industries,” Assistant Budget Director Aaron Moore told the City Council. “We do have projects that are being considered at this time, but no decisions have been made.”

City officials said they have set aside $130.6 million of ARP funds to stabilize Baltimore’s budget — local law prohibits city officials from ending the year with a deficit. About $50 million will be used to balance the fiscal year 2021 budget, which was pummeled by the pandemic: the city collected lower than anticipated revenues from parking, hotel and business fees. The remaining $80 million will be saved for future budgets.

That leaves the Office of Recovery Programs to determine how to best spend about $500 million.

“Opportunities like this just don't really happen anymore,” said Lester Spence, a professor of political science and Africana studies at Johns Hopkins University who specializes in urban politics.

He said the Scott administration has three options for the money: save it for a rainy day, use it to plug holes in the budget or funnel it to a few large projects. The latter is the only choice that could move Baltimore forward, he said.

“One argument is, if you just go for broke and you spend a chunk of it on large ticket items, that can help reimagine how cities function and then can in turn generate the political constituencies that will allow for those big ticket items to continue to get resources going forward,” he said. “That way you extend how the city functions.”

Mayor Scott has said that he’ll prioritize projects that get Baltimoreans back to work, help local businesses recover from the financial impact of the pandemic and invest in people and places that have been historically excluded.

Spence points to developments financially supported by the city located in what scholar Lawrence Brown coined the White L: the Inner Harbor, the redevelopment of Port Covington and a slew of projects from Under Armour executive chairman Kevin Plank.

“Those have been the big ticket items,” Spence said. “So in order to push back against that, you need to come up with something really, really big that can get another set of stakeholders to buy into the idea that we can run a city to the benefit of larger numbers of people.”

The mayor also has said he’s interested in expanding access to wireless broadband services, a disparity that the pandemic shined a light on as students took classes online and residents refreshed unemployment benefits and vaccine appointment websites. Spence said funding a push toward municipal internet would be transformative — something that could generate a feedback loop of equity through increased access to critical services.

Cities have seen a steady decline in federal funding and grants over the last 50 years, Spence said, calling the 10-person office “a statement of how much ground cities lost... 10 people isn't enough to figure out how to vet and distribute” hundreds of millions of dollars.

Ultimately, Scott is doing what he can with what he has, Spence said: “You want to create conditions where the people who determine where that money goes are Baltimoreans and the process is transparent and democratic.”

City agencies have already begun to submit applications to use the funds. Later, the application process will be opened to nonprofit groups.

The city should prioritize nonprofits with proven ability to serve hard-to-reach communities, said Filepe Filomeno, an associate professor of political science and global studies specializing in the Latin American diaspora in Baltimore at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

“Most members of the Latino community in Baltimore get information through their social networks and through the nonprofits that they regularly work with, so those are the actors that should be engaged,” Filomeno said.

Like Spence, Filomeno hopes that Scott funds projects that will address both immediate and long-term needs.

“When the house is on fire, you don't call the engineer, you call the fire department,” he said. “But I'm hoping that this program and how the city will distribute these funds will blend some of the engineering for the long term, but also putting away the fires for the short term.”

Food security was a huge concern of Baltimore’s Latino community at the onset of the pandemic and remains a problem today, Filomeno said. Such a project could look like a neighborhood garden that brings together community members while building a reliable source of food.

And as the opportunity for nonprofits to apply for funding nears, the Scott administration must create a deliberate outreach strategy to reach organizations and communities that are not as plugged into City Hall’s affairs as large philanthropy groups, he said.

“I want to be able to open my social media and see how the city is engaging with specific communities, and that information is arriving to the main organizations that serve the Latino community so that they can truly be part of the process,” Filomeno said.

Emily Sullivan is a city hall reporter at WYPR, where she covers all things Baltimore politics. She joined WYPR after reporting for NPR’s national airwaves. There, she was a reporter for NPR’s news desk, business desk and presidential conflicts of interest team. Sullivan won a national Edward R. Murrow Award for an investigation into a Trump golf course's finances alongside members of the Embedded team. She has also won awards from the Chesapeake Associated Press Broadcasters Association for her use of sound and feature stories. She has provided news analysis on 1A, The Takeaway, Here & Now and All Things Considered.