Mayor Brandon Scott has invested Baltimore’s windfall of federal pandemic aid across dozens of city agencies, businesses and local nonprofits and nearly as many projects, from delivering high-speed internet to low-income residents to cleaning up litter in disinvested neighborhoods to boosting hotels that have taken a hit since the pandemic.

It’s the testimonies of those hundreds of city grant recipients that Baltimore residents should pay attention to, said Shamiah Kerney, the director of the city’s pandemic aid office, during a City Council hearing Tuesday, in an appeal to residents to seek “facts over opinion.”

“Baltimore City residents, you may have heard comments or seen stories and articles that might lead you to believe that the receipt of $641 million in federal relief funds is a bad thing,” said Kerney, who heads the Mayor’s Office of Recovery Programs, which was created to oversee distribution and compliance of the federal aid. Such comments and stories “are designed to sow the seeds of division and doubt, and make you think the worst of Baltimore City.”

The defense of Baltimore’s spending plan for its $641 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding, part of the first day in a week of City Council hearings to set the budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1, comes as spending of the city’s $641 million in federal aid chugs along gradually, but as looming federal deadlines could prompt the city to reassess some priorities.

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The city has until the end of 2024 to obligate all of its money and until the end of 2026 to spend it.

The spending plan for Baltimore’s infusion of federal pandemic aid has fallen entirely under Scott’s purview, a product of the city’s “strong mayor” system that has been a source of frustration for some on the City Council. Over the last year, some council members have criticized the Scott administration for spreading its relief money too thin and called for larger commitments toward city services, such as weekly recycling pick-up, that were scaled back during the pandemic.

Kerney has been adamant that Baltimore doesn’t plan to leave a dollar on the table for the feds to reclaim, and she reiterated Tuesday that she has made clear to agencies and nonprofits that the city is prepared to pull back and reallocate money from projects that don’t look like they’ll come together on time.

As of the end of March, Baltimore has spent a little more than $90 million of its American Rescue Plan infusion, or about 14%.

Scott’s federal aid strategy includes some heavy lifts, among them numerous construction-intensive priorities, and Councilman Mark Conway pointed out Tuesday that only a fraction of the tens-of-millions committed for expanding access to affordable housing has so far been spent.

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When it comes to investments in affordable housing, Kerney said progress has been held up to resolve some legal issues but should pick up in the coming year.

But she said her office is keeping close tabs on some pandemic aid projects that haven’t gotten off the ground yet and may have to have “some very tough conversations with agencies” about re-prioritizing money. Given that the city only has until the end of next year to budget all of its funds, those conversations are likely to begin “sooner than later,” she said.

While Baltimore officials have their heads down trying to execute the many projects they have funded with American Rescue Plan aid, a looming deal between President Joe Biden and congressional Republicans to avert a debt ceiling crisis at the federal level has prompted anxiety for cities and counties around the country about the possibility of some of their pandemic aid being pulled back.

Asked about the implications for Baltimore on Tuesday, Kerney said the city has not yet received specific guidance from Maryland’s congressional delegation about the implications of debt ceiling negotiations for the city. Nina Themelis, interim director of the Mayor’s Office of Government Relations, said the city is not aware of threats to its unspent American Rescue Plan money at this time, though a final debt ceiling deal could have implications for other federally supported work in Baltimore.

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The National League of Cities, which has been tracking American Rescue Plan spending at the local level, similarly said last week that after conversations with U.S. Department of the Treasury and congressional staff, it has been assured that the local commitments are not on the chopping block in the final debt ceiling negotiations.

Councilwoman Phylicia Porter questioned how the city intends to sustain the many programs and services it has made possible with its one-time federal infusion, including an $11 million food assistance program that has helped provide meals to low-income families.

Kerney said she and her team are having ongoing conversations with agencies about how to continue the work they’re doing beyond the expiration of American Rescue Plan money at the end of 2026. But she added that there’s “not an easy answer” to these questions today, and she doesn’t expect the city will be able to maintain these programs at the same level when funding runs out.

“$641 million is a lot of money to try to replace,” she said.

Adam Willis covers city government for The Banner, including the impacts of the large COVID-19 stimulus package that Baltimore received from the federal government.

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