Pizza parties are easy, governing is harder

As an elected official, it’s easy to make promises people want to hear without considering what fulfilling those promises will take. It’s easy to look at the top line of an appropriation and decide – without reading it, without reviewing rules surrounding it – that you know how it should be spent. In essence, it’s easy to hold a pizza party – it’s much harder to actually govern.

For the “tl;dr crowd,” the bottom line is that we don’t have money available under the CARES Act for bonuses, and even if we did, bonuses are prohibited from being reimbursed by the CARES Act.

When I wrote last week that I wanted to give all of Baltimore City’s critical frontline staff a raise based on their commitment to keeping our City running during the pandemic, I meant it. But as an elected official, I have a duty to my constituents to carefully review and evaluate information before proposing an idea. I like to think of it in terms of school – if I’m going to do well on the test, I need to do my homework.

Recently, my colleagues proposed using a portion of Baltimore City’s CARES Act funding to provide one-time bonuses to employees in DPW’s Solid Waste Division. As I noted last week, this is inherently inequitable, and ignores the incredible efforts of employees across the rest of our City government providing critical services – nurses and EMTs and firefighters and parks staff – who would not receive this proposed bonus.

But my colleagues doubled down on this proposal, noting – without doing their homework – that the idea represents only “a fraction” of the $103 million from the federal government. What I wrote last week remains no less true today – we have expended or obligated in excess of $103 million on our COVID-19 response for which the federal government may reimburse the city. This money was spent providing much-needed COVID-19 supports and resources across the City.

However, because I enjoy doing my homework, I decided to take a second look – I wanted to make sure that I did not miss anything that might possibly benefit our hard-working frontline staff, including DPW’s Solid Waste Division. Maybe I’d hadn’t seen a critical piece of information that could provide dollars for this effort?

Reader, I did not. 

Even a cursory review of the Department of Treasury’s CARES Act guidance clearly illustrates this point (see page five (5), bullet point six (6)). Workforce bonuses for anything other than hazard or overtime pay – which these one-time bonuses would not qualify as – are prohibited. In other words, even if we still had the money available in the CARES Act – we don’t – we couldn’t spend it on what my colleagues have proposed.

I’d like to reiterate how much I appreciate the efforts of our frontline staff, and I look forward to finding real solutions to rewarding these efforts to ensure that we appropriately compensate and incentivize the hard-working crews in our Solid Waste Division and across City government. I look forward to working with the Mayor, the Department of Finance, and my colleagues on the City Council – even those who are a bit lax on their homework – to participate in these efforts.

I recognize that it is tough to voice unpopular truths, but it is a burden that elected officials must carry. We owe it to our constituents and to our City employees to put forward actual plans, not just Facebook posts put up “for the likes.”

And to end on a brighter note – here’s a photo of me and some neighbors throwing a pizza party for some of the DPW sanitation staff in the Southwestern Quadrant back in June, to thank them for their work in the 11th District during the pandemic. I thanked them then, and I continue to be grateful for their efforts throughout these last few months. As the Councilman for the 11th District and Chair of the City Council’s Budget & Appropriations Committee, I’ll continue to do my homework, to find ways to reward their hard work and commitment.