SLCO Council votes to fund more prosecutors for Operation Rio Grande

Council chairman irked at ‘offensive’ suggestion D.A. would bow out of effort if denied extra money.<br>

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Salt Lake County Council Chairman Steven DeBry speaks to a gathering in the Salt Lake County Council chambers.

The Salt Lake County Council voted unanimously on Tuesday to give the district attorney’s office what it asked for: money to handle a crush of new felony cases stemming from Operation Rio Grande.

The vote will cost the county $313,000 for two new prosecutors and a legal assistant devoted to the crackdown on crime near the downtown homeless center, but it didn’t come easy.

As it did a week earlier, the Council on Tuesday aired concerns over District Attorney Sim Gill’s out-of-budget cycle request and questioned whether the jobs couldn’t wait, as there are open, unfilled jobs in his office.

Council Chairman Steve DeBry also said remarks contained in an email from Gill’s office that suggested prosecutors would not participate in Operation Rio Grande if the funding were denied were “offensive.”

“I’m still a little bit hot over it,” DeBry said, after ticking off more than a dozen jobs the council has funded for Gill in recent years. “You have gotten and gotten … I like doing what we’re doing with Rio Grande and we need to continue to do it, but I guess my point is, you really can’t do it with the existing resources that you have?”

There are currently three open positions in the district attorney’s office, Debry noted.

“Why can’t you just step up to the plate,” an agitated DeBry said. “And then come back in the regular budget cycle.”

Gill’s short answer: No.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Sim Gill, Salt Lake County District Attorney, at the Hate Crimes Round Table Discussion, hosted by NAACP and MLK Commission in Salt Lake City, Thursday August 4, 2016.

“This is not part of our normal budget process,” he said. “We are taking on additional work, separate from our normal baseline functions.”

Since August, Operation Rio Grande has sent 367 new felony cases to Gill’s office and triggered the processing of 711 outstanding criminal warrants. That number grows daily, the prosecutor said, as law enforcement continues to make new arrests.

Working within the normal budget process, which begins in November, would delay Gill’s ability hire staff until January, he has said.

Gill also reminded the council that Operation Rio Grande prosecutions aren’t like other cases. Instead, they are “invested prosecutions” that require persistent attention by the courts, prosecutors and caseworkers, to ensure that participants stick with the program, which diverts them into drug treatment instead of sending them right to jail. Each case must be followed for 36 months.

The council has concerns about the hit Operation Rio Grande will make to its budget.

Salt Lake County is projecting it will need roughly $30 million to cover expenses over the two-year program — nearly half of the $67 million the Utah Legislature has estimated the program will cost. Based on the agreement inked with the state, the county anticipates getting reimbursed for about $2.7 million of its costs each year.

In all, Salt Lake County estimates it will add more than 100 full-time jobs to various agencies to cope with the impact of Operation Rio Grande, including 97 positions so that Sheriff Rosie Rivera can staff and open the Oxbow jail.