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Olszewski lays out plans for spending American Rescue money

Olszewski newser November 2021.JPG
Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski at November 3, 2021 news conference in Towson. Credit: John Lee

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski said Wednesday he plans to spend half of the $160 million the county is getting from the American Rescue Plan Act on the ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic

He said he’d spend another $60 million to help residents and businesses recover economically and set aside $20 million for a second round of proposals.

“This is a critical moment and we are committed to getting it right,” Olszewski said at a news conference in Towson.

Administration officials said the public can have a say on how the money in the last two categories are spent. There will be two virtual public town halls and residents can also take a survey.

County Council Chairman Julian Jones, a Democrat, said the council should have a role overseeing how the millions will be spent.

In an interview with WYPR Jones said, “It’s an awful lot of money. Reviewing the list, it’s as if Christmas came early.”

The $160 million is divided into three categories:

- $80 million for the county’s ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

- $60 million to help residents and businesses recover economically.

- $20 million is set aside for a second round of proposals.

The county’s website has a breakdown of how the money will be spent, as well as more details on how the public can participate.

The money is being spread around in a variety of areas. For example, it includes $3 million to fund a continuing effort to help Essex on the county’s east side.

“Essex has consistently faced challenges,” Olszewski said. “High poverty, housing instability, and the county’s highest rate of opioid overdoses. We know that these challenges grew even worse during the pandemic.”

There is $1 million set aside for tuition grants to try to attract county residents into teaching. Olszewski said this is to address the county’s teacher shortage.

“Last year, over 180 teachers resigned from our school system, a number that may continue to grow as a result of the pandemic,” Olszewski said.

Programs targeted for ARPA money include mental health, tree planting, redevelopment of the Liberty Road corridor, tourism, and hiring more school bus drivers.

Council Chairman Jones said there are many good proposals on the list.

“Maybe there’s room for tweaking or other suggestions to help make sure the money is spent in the most effective and efficient way possible,” Jones said.

The Baltimore City Council voted this week to require Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration to give it monthly reports on federal relief spending.

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

Chairman Jones said he isn’t sure if that sort of oversight will be necessary in the county.

“But clearly we have a role to play and we’ll play it,” Jones said.

At Wednesday’s news conference Leonard Howie, the county’s economic development director, said ARPA funds come with very detailed guidance from the federal government.

“There’s not a lot of leeway that you actually have to spend the money,” Howie said.

He added that oversight is built into the county law, which requires the council to sign off on purchases greater than $25,000.

The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act was signed into law by President Biden in March.

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