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Baltimore, Where’s the Recovery Money?

December 6, 2010

The federal stimulus program has lavished nearly $1 billion on Baltimore City, and until a year ago, anyone could easily see where the money was being spent. But since February the city has been mum about where the money is going, according to a state watchdog group.

“It’s a mystery to me,” says Neil Bergsman, director of the Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute. “I think not only is it a legal requirement for them to post that information on the internet, I believe it would seem to be good public relations and good politics, because I believe the city is accomplishing some pretty good stuff with that money.”

While in office, then Baltimore City Mayor Sheila Dixon pledged to report the city’s spending of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act money (ARRA), and she was true to her word. The city established a task force, called the Baltimore Economic Recovery Team (BERT). It’s supposed to be “a multi-agency team to maximize the use of funds made available under ARRA,” according to its web site where, last February, three detailed quarterly spending reports appeared covering 2009.

Since then: nothing. Under its “latest news” the web site lists a press release from Jan. 14.

Friday, Recovery Watch Maryland, a nonprofit “fighting for transparency, equity, and accountability in Maryland’s economic recovery,” sent out its report card on the state and city ARRA efforts.

“We had a number of phone calls and e-mails and even a meeting in City Hall before we took the step of publicizing this,” says Bergsman, whose organization is part of the coalition that makes up Recovery Watch. “There doesn’t seem to be much interest in complying.”

Bergsman’s group, which received a grant from the Open Society Institute to look after the Recovery Act money, used federal and state databases to track the city’s allotment as best it could. About 41 percent of the total $938 million has been allocated to health care, the group found—all of that going to Medicaid payments. About $252 million has been allocated to educational endeavors, $84 million to transportation, $70 million to “safety net”—mostly food—and almost $153 million under “others.”

Of that category, about $92 million went to housing, some $30 million of which went to the Baltimore Housing Authority.

Some categories and agencies have spent the money faster than others—and fast spending is seen as good by the watchdogs and the Obama Administration, which is trying to create and save jobs with the money. Money allocated to environmental endeavors, for example, was 52 percent spent as of Sept. 30.

Bergsman praised the city’s weatherization effort, which he says has spent more than $3 million so far improving more than 687 housing units. In Baltimore, of course, those houses are otherwise crappy enough that they might not have qualified for the weatherization efforts but for some fancy bureaucratic footwork by the city. According to the Recovery Watch report:

The city has launched an innovative program that allows it to use weatherization funds to leverage other public funds reserved for complementary programs geared toward improved housing conditions.  These other programs include lead abatement, pest elimination, housing rehabilitation, and energy conservation.

This strategy has enabled the city to weatherize homes that would not otherwise meet the minimum standards of structural integrity that govern the distribution of weatherization funds as well as to simultaneously accomplish multiple objectives geared toward making homes more habitable.  The city has also been one of the first to overcome the formidable barriers to using weatherization funds in public housing.  In addition, the city has contracted with its Public Housing Authority to allocate any future savings in energy consumption toward weatherizing additional public housing stock.

The Recovery Watch report goes on to say it’s unfortunate that the city “has not made much of an effort to publicize its weatherization program accomplishments,” which it suggests could serve as a model for other cities.

“What we don’t know and would like to find out from the city is what jobs have been produced,” Bergsman says. “And I suspect that there have been thousands of jobs created or saved.”

A call and an e-mail to the mayor’s office were not immediately returned.

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