Utah’s Operation Rio Grande costs $300,000 a month in overtime pay for cops

Officials are still pondering a $21 million shortfall<br>

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) Law enforcement officers from several agencies increase their presence in the Rio Grand homeless area in Salt Lake City, on Monday August 14, 2017.

No one said the recent push to tackle issues surrounding homelessness in Salt Lake City would be cheap — the cost of the two-year Operation Rio Grande was tagged at $67 million, $21 million of which has yet to be found.

Overtime pay for police, alone, from the initiative’s onset Aug. 14 through Dec. 31 was well over $600,000.

The Utah Highway Patrol had overtime allocations of $586,125; the Salt Lake City Police Department spent $27,763; Salt Lake County’s Unified Police Department’s overtime totaled $28,037.

During the same time period, the Utah Department of Corrections estimates it spent about $800,000 for probation and parole agents to take part in the initiative.

All told, that’s $1.44 million, or about $320,000 per month.

The law enforcement expenditures are expected to drop as Operation Rio Grande moves forward, said spokesman Nate McDonald. Some 2,500 arrests have been made. That also should decline.

Presently, there is a $21 million shortfall. Proponents are asking the Utah Legislature for $10 million this year. The remainder will be left for Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County. Many of the details surrounding the funding remain to be worked out in the coming year.

The operation includes three phases, McDonald explained.

Phase I was aimed at improving public safety and reducing the crime rate, particularly around downtown’s Road Home shelter. Phase II is dedicated to helping people suffering from mental illness and addiction. And Phase III seeks to connect homeless people with jobs that could support housing.

“All the phases are up and running,” McDonald said. “We’re on track but we have a long way to go before we can claim victory. There is a lot of work left to be done in each phase.”

Some of the highlights thus far, according to the Utah Division of Workforce Services, include the creation of 199 new addiction treatment beds. Some 70 people have entered treatment through Salt Lake County’s new drug court program. And a new sober living pilot program has already placed 16 people.

The operation is moving forward with the expectation that three new homeless shelter/resource centers will come on line in the next 14 months. The centers will offer a total of 700 beds. The Road Home, slated to close June 30, 2019, can house as many as 1,100.

The 400 bed difference will be negated, McDonald said, by shorter stays in shelters as people are expected to get into housing faster.

Housing poses a significant challenge with vacancy rates in Salt Lake County hovering around 2.6 percent.

Homeless advocate Deeda Seed said that Operation Rio Grande has brought with it a better understanding that more beds are needed for people suffering from mental illness and drug addiction.

But she noted that the initiative is not an efficient way of tackling the problem. The money spent on police and jail bookings, she said, could have gone toward treatment and housing.

In addition, Seed said, Operation Rio Grande has displaced many homeless people, who have moved elsewhere outdoors.

“We are talking about human beings who are suffering,” she said. “We’ve made their lives harder.”

Beyond that, residents in Salt Lake City neighborhoods are complaining that they now have homeless people in their neighborhoods. Police have said they are working on the issue.