Forget jail and ERs, another mental health option is on the way in S.L. County

Huntsman institute will be expanded while South Salt Lake facility is built.

Salt Lake County Council members banded together Tuesday to fast-track a temporary mental health facility that will serve residents in crisis while a permanent center is being built.

The nine-member council voted unanimously to spend $2.5 million from the federal American Rescue Plan Act to retrofit and expand the existing Huntsman Mental Health Institute, giving police a new place to take those in crisis that isn’t a jail or an emergency room.

“In the time I’ve been on the council, I’ve never seen eight council members co-sponsor an agenda item,” council Chair Laurie Stringham said in a news release. “This shows the commitment of the council to support mental health resources for our residents.”

Council member Dave Alvord did not co-sponsor the measure but did vote to approve it.

On top of retrofit costs, the investment will cover 17 months of staffing, beginning in April. Labor costs will be covered until fall 2024, when the permanent Kem and Carolyn Gardner Mental Health Crisis Care Center in South Salt Lake is finished. Any unspent money allocated for the temporary center may be used on the permanent facility.

High demand for services prompted council members to bring a temporary center on line while the new center goes up.

Salt Lake City Council members Victoria Petro-Eschler, Ana Valdemoros and Alejandro Puy attended the County Council meeting Tuesday to voice support for the funding and tell county leaders that a temporary receiving center would help in the fight against homelessness.

“The people who dwell on North Temple are wonderful humans worthy of dignity and are in a spiral,” west-side City Council member Petro-Eschler said. “And it is my belief that any relief that we can offer, any arrow we can add to the quiver in addressing this crisis, is in our collective best interest to do so.”

County Council member Aimee Winder Newton said in a statement that the investment is a good call because state leaders have deemed county governments Utah’s mental health authorities.

“This investment will not only improve mental health outcomes,” she said, “but will save taxpayer dollars in the long run.”

Sending those in crisis to jail and hospitals is costly, time-consuming and doesn’t provide the long-term care people need, Ross VanVranken, executive director of the Huntsman Mental Health Institute, said in a statement.

“This shows the commitment of the council,” he said, “to support mental health resources for our residents.”

Council members also intend to back a measure outlined in Mayor Jenny Wilson’s proposed budget that would infuse an extra $1 million toward the construction of the South Salt Lake receiving center, bringing the total county investment in the permanent facility to $6 million (not including the land the county donated for the project).

“We are committed to getting this finished,” Wilson said in a statement, “and appreciate all those who have partnered on this project.”

The Larry H. and Gail Miller Family Foundation will kick in $3.5 million toward the permanent center, which will be located near the county jail.