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Council passes bill requiring monthly ARPA spending hearings from Scott administration

Baltimore City Council President Nick Mosby speaks at a Monday council meeting.
Charm TV
Baltimore City Council President Nick Mosby speaks at a Monday council meeting.

The Baltimore City Council unanimously passed a bill from Council President Nick Mosby that mandates monthly reports from the Scott administration on federal relief spending during a Monday meeting.

The all-Democrat group expedited the legislative process to pass the bill faster than usual, after Mayor Brandon Scott announced $130 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding allocations last month.

“This ordinance just allows for more engagement of the council… to ensure that we're driving as much transparency as possible to the citizens of Baltimore,” Mosby said after the vote.

The bill would go into effect 30 days after receiving Mayor Scott’s signature. Senior administration officials, who signed on to quarterly briefings with the council before Mosby introduced the legislation, objected to the bill, arguing that monthly reports would be burdensome on staff and fail to provide meaningful data. The U.S. Treasury, which oversees all ARPA spending, requires quarterly reporting from municipalities.

A spokesman for the mayor said he supports the intent of the bill and is considering signing the legislation.

“Transparency and accountability are core tenets of the Scott administration, and central to the mission of the Office of Recovery Programs,” spokesman Cal Harris said. “The mayor is focused on delivering regular, transparent updates to measure progress and performance for Baltimore residents.”

Mosby has argued that more than enough city manpower is on hand to produce the data, pointing to the Office of Recovery Programs. Scott created the office to oversee the distribution of Baltimore’s $641 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds over the summer, allocating $10 million for the 11-person office over the next few years.

“$641 million might seem like a lot of money, but in a big city with big city problems, sprinkling it throughout organizations and communities without a concerted effort could be potentially problematic, and we would not necessarily see the type of transformation change we all want from this money,” Mosby said.

Scott has invited both city agencies and nonprofits to apply for ARPA funding through the Office of Recovery Programs. They submit proposals to the office, whose members use a rubric weighing equity, cost, risk, among other factors, to score potential projects. Ultimately, every ARPA dollar requires Scott’s sign-off; he has the final say over approved projects and controls the Board of Estimates, which must approve all city spending.

As of Monday, the office had reviewed 165 proposals, 79 of which are eligible for ARPA funding under guidelines from the U.S. Treasury, which mandates that funding be spent on pandemic response efforts, public services including wireless broadband and economic stabilization for businesses and households.

Scott announced $80 million for the health department last month; the money will fund programming centered on COVID-19 prevention. He announced another $50 million for violence prevention efforts last week. The Mayor’s Office of Neighborhood Safety and Engagement (MONSE) will put the money toward conflict mediation programming, support for crime victims and residents returning from prison and the creation of neighborhood policing plans.

Mosby did not criticize the programs themselves, but the decision to finance them without publicly releasing data showing how officials decided on specific numbers. He said the monthly hearings would allow the council to ask the administration about certain figures, such as the decision to hire 120 contact tracers.

Scott and members of his cabinet have detailed why and how they believe the funding can improve outcomes throughout Baltimore: MONSE Director Shantay Jackson has said that city ARPA funds will help approximately 3,000 returning citizens find jobs, a service that the city has never funded before.

“Why wasn't it 121? Where are these numbers coming from, where’s the math? Are we going to be able, based off of having those contract tracers, prevent ‘X’ amount of deaths?” he asked in an interview last week. “This isn’t saying, ‘The administration is doing a bad job.’ This is just an action by the council of doing its job and one of its core competencies as a council is to provide oversight. And you can't provide oversight without necessary information.”

He also touted language in the bill that specifically calls for the Scott administration to provide data to demonstrate whether ARPA funds are used to improve city services, such as response times to 311 requests, especially in Black Butterfly neighborhoods shown to receive those services less frequently.

“When it takes six months for bulk trash to come and pick up a mattress or a refrigerator, those things matter as it relates to the growth and sustainability of our communities,” he said.

The bill calls for each monthly report to contain data and metrics that show how spent funds have impacted city services, including effectiveness, efficiency, reach throughout different neighborhoods as well as sustainability. The monthly reports must also show how spent funds impact equity, population growth, labor and employment and economic growth, including the growth of minority and women-owned businesses.

Quarterly reports must spell out operational expenses, including grants, procurement and disbursement procedures and the costs of community outreach, such as marketing and promotional materials.

Yearly reports are due through 2024 by June 30. They must spell out the inequities addressed by spent ARPA funds and recommended steps to address further inequities.

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.