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City ARPA office says equity and transparency are guiding principles

Patrick Semansky/AP
Baltimore City Hall. On Tuesday, Shamiah Kerney, chief of Mayor Brandon Scott’s Office of Recovery Programs, testified before the City Council about $641 million in American Rescue Plan funding.

Baltimore has not yet spent any of its $641 million in American Rescue Plan funding on pandemic recovery efforts, but the team of officials tasked with spending that pot of money told the council what kind of projects they’re looking to support during a hearing Tuesday.

“I am keenly focused on five guiding principles of impact, transparency, equity, accountability and responsibility,” said Shamiah Kerney, chief of Mayor Brandon Scott’s Office of Recovery Programs.

The American Rescue Plan, also called ARPA, was signed into law in March. By May, Baltimore received $320,585,000 — half of its ARPA funds. The next half is due to arrive in May 2022.

These funds are less restricted than those from previous stimulus packages, such as the Cares Act. but the US Treasury Departmentdid outline main categories for their spending: public health efforts, economic relief and revenue loss adjustments, as well investment in broadband, water and sewer infrastructure.

Mayor Brandon Scott tapped Kerney to run the city’s ARPA office. The Democrat has the most say over how the money will be spent. He has said he’s interested in broadband expansion, getting Baltimoreans back to work and putting money in disinvested neighborhoods.

Though Scott had committed to giving the council quarterly ARPA updates, City Council President Nick Mosby mandated these public updates through a bill. He said the city should fund projects that can demonstrate the strongest return.

“At the end of the day, the goal here should be for us to create investments so we can look at the best return on those investments in five years, 10 years, 15 years, 20 years,” Mosby said.

About $141 million of ARPA funds have been set aside to balance the city’s budget. Baltimore has recovered fewer parking fees, hotel taxes and other forms of revenue since the pandemic hit.

“It's been really devastating on the city's finances and has been quite a challenge this year to keep everything running smoothly,” said budget director Bob Cenname.

He said the city’s budget team will be involved in ARPA funding considerations and that he worked closely with the Office of Recovery Programs to determine the $141 million figure.

That leaves more than half a billion dollars for recovery programs. Both city agencies and 501(c)(3) nonprofits in good standing can submit applications for the money to Kerney’s team. They’ll grade these proposals based on risk, cost and equity. Scott will need to give them a final stamp of approval.

The Office of Recovery Programs will also weigh input from other elected officials, who can endorse projects. Kerney says that council members and Comptroller Bill Henry can endorse up to 10 projects, while City Council President Mosby can endorse up to 15.

“We will share that information with the city administrator and with the mayor when we are making recommendations for projects that we think should be funded,” Kerney said.

Other considerations before funding a project will include overall funding levels, the project’s timeline and potential impact.

Kerney’s office is responsible for reporting how every penny of the city’s ARPA funds are spent to the federal treasury. If that agency deems the projects ineligible, the money spent on them must be repaid.

“While some of our eligibility decisions may not be popular, the recovery office is focused on ensuring that we use ARPA funds for eligible purposes, thereby avoiding any potential repayment,” she said.

Nonprofits have until the end of the year to submit ARPA proposals. City agencies have until the spring. The money must be allocated by 2025.

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.