Baltimore ARPA official responds to criticisms that city’s pandemic stimulus is moving too slow

Published on: August 09, 2022 5:54 PM EDT|Updated on: August 09, 2022 7:08 PM EDT

Chief Recovery Officer Shamiah Kerney chats with fund awardees after the presentation.

Baltimore is spending its $641 million in federal COVID-19 aid as quickly as similar cities elsewhere, officials told City Council Tuesday, responding to council member criticisms the money isn’t being spent with enough urgency nor being used to resume core services curtailed during the pandemic.

Mayor’s Office of Recovery Programs director Shamiah Kerney told members of City Council’s Ways and Means Committee during a quarterly update that Baltimore is keeping pace with other similarly sized cities in the disbursement of money from the American Rescue Plan Act, the sweeping federal stimulus package aimed at boosting the economic recovery from the pandemic in communities across the country.

Kerney presented an analysis of U.S. Department of Treasury data, conducted by her office, showing Baltimore ahead of a group of designated “peer” cities when it comes to allocating and spending its federal stimulus money. While Baltimore ranks in the bottom half of large cities — those exceeding 250,000 residents — in both the amount of stimulus money obligated and spent, the analysis showed Charm City outpacing certain similar municipalities. Of those cities, Boston outstripped Baltimore in its ARPA money obligated and spent as of April 1 — the latest data available — while St. Louis, Detroit, and Washington, D.C., all trailed.

Cities across the country have been “slow to spend” their federal stimulus money, and Kerney said third-party sources show “Baltimore City is not an anomaly” in this process.

Additionally, the office’s analysis showed that Baltimore has used significantly more of its ARPA money for addressing public health issues and the economic fallout of the pandemic compared to other large cities. Elsewhere, ARPA spending has included a significantly larger focus on replacing lost revenues from the pandemic, the loosest category under treasury department guidelines, the analysis showed. Baltimore has set aside $80 million for budget needs, while Kerney said a focus on this usage to fill salaries and personnel costs in other cities has contributed to the perception that they are moving at a faster clip.

Cities, states and counties have until the end of 2024 to obligate their ARPA stimulus money and until the end of 2026 to spend it. The package comes with few strings attached compared to most federal programs, and Baltimore has decided to invest its stimulus across a broad range, including housing programs, food insecurity, broadband accessibility, public recreation centers and the COVID-19 response, among other uses.

So far, Baltimore has committed nearly $500 million of its ARPA allocation — more than the amount that has been reported to the federal government because most allocations haven’t been approved by a city spending board yet. An even smaller share of Baltimore’s money has been spent, about 5%, according to a dashboard maintained by the Mayor’s Office of Recovery Programs.

While Kerney looked to dispel notions Tuesday that Baltimore isn’t getting its ARPA money on the ground quickly enough, several city council members again pushed for more of the money to be put toward improving basic services — such as procurement and weekly recycling pickup — many of which were disrupted by the onset of the pandemic two years ago and never got back on track.

Asked by Councilwoman Danielle McCray how much ARPA money is going toward restoring such city services, Kerney and city administrator Chris Shorter both highlighted an initiative Mayor Brandon Scott announced last week aimed at recruiting community members to help “clean and green” public spaces in historically disinvested neighborhoods of Baltimore. The so-called Clean Corps initiative, launched with $14.7 million in ARPA money, will provide grants to community organizations and nonprofits for cleaning up trash, debris and overgrown vacant lots in 15 East and West Baltimore neighborhoods.

The mayor’s office officials also noted a recent allocation of $10 million in ARPA money for the city Department of Public Works, which is designated for worker safety improvements.

But Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer argued those allocations miss the mark in responding to the city’s great need for restoring city services.

The city still hasn’t resumed services to pick up recycling on a weekly basis, Schleifer noted, a service that would benefit substantially from an investment like the one the mayor’s office put into launching the Clean Corps initiative.

“This $15 million is essentially a Band-Aid which is not gonna last that long,” and which could have gone toward dealing with the root cause issue, he said. Schleifer called it “mind boggling” that Baltimore isn’t boosting existing programs with federal money.

But while the mayor’s office has agreed that services such as recycling pickup are suffering, Shorter said that the problem is a worker shortage that can’t be solved simply by pumping in more money. The Clean Corps program not only responds to the issue of neglected neighborhoods, Shorter said, but also helps to train city residents for longer-term work in the public works department.

“It is a wise investment, one that I am proud of. I think that it answers a number of calls that we have been receiving,” he said.

The city administrator also told council members that the city has held off on investing limited ARPA money into some core service areas because they are anticipating potentially massive volumes of federal cash out of Congress’ infrastructure bill. City officials are working hard to ensure the city is well equipped to compete for money out of that separate federal package, he said.

Tuesday’s hearing on the rollout of COVID-19 stimulus money follows a budget update earlier this year in which exchanges between Kerney and council members sometimes turned tense, with the elected leaders pushing for faster grant decisions on hundreds of applications for ARPA funding from city nonprofits.

The city has since put close to $14 million in federal stimulus towards 17 nonprofit organizations, including awards announced this week. A spokesman for the mayor’s office said more funding rounds are still to come.

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