Several Baltimore City Council members continued their push for Baltimore to use more of its American Rescue Plan dollars to restore city services impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, such as waste collection, during a quarterly hearing about the federal funding Tuesday.
So far, the city has committed about 75% of its $641 million from the federal government to various causes, but only about 5% of its total allotment had been spent as of May, according to the city’s website.
Tuesday, staffers from the city said that Baltimore has used the bulk of its funding to help city residents and businesses recover economically from the pandemic, whereas many similarly positioned cities used the bulk of their federal dollars to make up for lost city revenue. Most recently, the city announced about $6.6 million bound for various local nonprofits working to address issues such as homelessness and joblessness.
During Tuesday’s hearing, several City Council members sparred with members of Mayor Brandon Scott’s administration over whether more funds should go toward efforts such as resuming weekly recycling pickup, which was reduced to biweekly in January amid staffing shortages caused by the pandemic.
In response, Shamiah Kerney, the city’s chief recovery officer, referenced the Clean Corps program recently announced by the mayor’s office, which would use ARP funds to hire Baltimore residents to remove trash from alleys, vacant lots and public receptacles in up to 15 selected neighborhoods.
Councilman Isaac “Yitzy” Schleifer of the 5th District expressed concern that such a cleanup program wouldn’t address the root causes of illegal dumping, since it wouldn’t make waste collection easier. He said ARP funds might be better spent helping the city’s Department of Public Works to increase staffing and reinstate weekly recycling pickup. Long lines at the city’s Northwest Transfer Station have discouraged residents from dropping off waste, increasing the potential for illegal dumping, he said.
“I’m just trying to understand the calculus on creating a program that essentially gives a million dollars to a community to hire people to clean up, or to clean up in general, when we have infrastructure that needs to be built on, and $15 million would be a game-changer to those operations,” Schleifer said.
Christopher Shorter, the city’s chief administrative officer, who was appointed by Scott, defended the Clean Corps program as a good use of ARP money.
“It’s not an either-or,” Shorter said. “So, we are not taking money from an agency and giving it to a community. We are empowering DPW to do what it needs to do and we’re empowering the community to help.”
Shorter said the administration has also earmarked $10 million within the ARP funds for the Department of Public Works to make repairs to some of its facilities and improve working conditions for staff. Shorter said in June that DPW had submitted 37 applications for ARP funding totaling $205 million, but none had been approved yet.
The lack of weekly recycling pickup was also a flashpoint during a hearing earlier this summer to decide the Department of Public Works budget. At that time, officials from the department said they planned to commission a study to assess the changes in recycling behavior brought on by the city’s new, larger recycling bins, which were doled out to homes citywide.
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During that budget hearing, Shorter said DPW had submitted 37 applications for ARP funding totaling $205 million, but none had been approved yet.
Tuesday, several council members reiterated concerns about slow city services, such as tree trimmings and road repairs.
Shorter said the city hopes to use incoming federal infrastructure funding, rather than ARP funding, to address some of those concerns.
“While 641 million sounds like a large number, it is not when it comes to infrastructure,” he said. “We can spend considerable funds to improve a road or water infrastructure and that would eat up — to a large extent — a big portion of the very limited American Rescue Plan dollars we have.”
In June, the city established an Office of Infrastructure Development to help allocate the incoming infrastructure dollars. Shorter said the office is focused on hiring grant writers who would help the city compete for funds, in addition to staffers who would help ensure that projects for which the city has received federal funding are approved expeditiously by the city’s spending board and that the projects proceed on time afterward.
But council members remained concerned that certain city problems would go unaddressed without ARP funding, including slowness within the city’s procurement process. Councilman Eric Costello closed the meeting by describing a frustrating lag he has experienced while trying to get equipment for a playground in his district, the city’s 11th.
“The community and myself have been interacting with Rec and Parks to try and order a new sunshade for a park in my district and a number of swings that are damaged or missing since last July,” he said, “and it’s just been particularly frustrating to go over a year without swing sets at a park for kids.”