Don Fry Commentary in BBJ: Baltimore mayor needs to spend $670M stimulus ‘gift’ wisely

By Donald C. Fry
April 13, 2021

Mayor Brandon Scott is the fortunate recipient of a “once in a lifetime” opportunity that elected officials rarely enjoy.

The recently enacted American Rescue Plan Act allocated $6.36 billion to the state of Maryland, $4 billion directed to state government and $2.3 billion to counties and municipalities.

Of the $2.3 billion to be distributed, Baltimore City will receive the largest portion, $670 million, largely to be spent at the discretion of the mayor.

Additionally, Baltimore City will benefit from a sizable portion of the $4 billion in statewide spending that Gov. Larry Hogan and the Maryland General Assembly approved for schools, expanded broadband technology and access, transportation and transit improvements, employment and apprenticeship training and more.

This unprecedented amount of resources provides the mayor the opportunity to not only make up for lost city revenue as a result of the pandemic, but to make targeted and strategic investments that can be impactful and transformative for Baltimore City and its residents.

The mayor has steadfastly asserted his desire for transparency and accountability in his administration. He is to be commended for the approach he has taken to date to inform the public of the goals and actions taken in his first 100-plus days.

Now more than ever, Scott needs to double down on that pledge and institute a public reporting tool to demonstrate how each dollar of this financial windfall is being spent and how it is intended to positively improve the lives of citizens and the economic prosperity of the city.

This is not the time to expeditiously spend to address a wish list of city agencies or pet projects of elected officials. Rather, it is time to thoughtfully and deliberatively leverage the “fiscal gift” and to take a holistic approach toward its spending.

The universal question to be asked before any of this funding is spent is: Will the expenditure of these dollars enhance the lives of our citizens and the city’s economic future?

Recognizing that this influx of funds will not be replicated, it is vital to make expenditures that will not create ongoing costs for the city, but instead will provide a vital boost to strategic priorities that the city has not had the financial capacity to invest in. No better time exists for our local government to consider ways to:

  • Incentivize the development of new affordable housing in neighborhoods throughout the city;
  • Commit funding for a new generation of community centers that serve as a hub for early childhood programs, after school programming and community services, such as adult education and senior services;
  • Allocate funding to complement the state’s investment in broadband infrastructure and access to close the “digital divide”;
  • Create a fund to provide financial support to startup companies and entrepreneurs;
  • Establish economic recovery grant programs for small and minority-owned businesses;
  • Make one-time investments in neighborhoods and the downtown business district to enhance its competitiveness;
  • Expedite funding for programs directed in the federal consent decree for the city’s police department;
  • and improve transportation access to employment hubs for transit dependent neighborhoods.

Prior to the last city election, the Greater Baltimore Committee stated that “Baltimore is at a crossroads. The 2020 election for mayor provides an excellent opportunity for Baltimore to turn the corner with bold leadership.” We outlined characteristics for a mayor who “will not merely lead Baltimore, but dramatically transform the city for the betterment of current residents and the generations that follow.”

Little did we know when we set forth that aspirational goal that within six months of taking office, the mayor would unexpectedly receive a largess of funding that could set the path toward impactful and transformative change. Mayor Scott is presented with a unique and extraordinary opportunity to invest in Baltimore and its citizens, and to create a legacy for himself and his administration that none of his predecessors enjoyed.

It is important that all of us — elected officials, city residents, community and business leaders — demand that the money received from the American Rescue Plan Act is spent wisely and directed with a goal toward longterm, meaningful and impactful outcomes. The mayor cannot afford to squander this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Donald C. Fry, president and CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, wrote this commentary on behalf of the Greater Baltimore Committee’s Board of Directors.

Source: Baltimore Business Journal