Utah taxpayers to spend $67 million to improve SLC’s Rio Grande area through law enforcement, drug treatment, services

A $21 million funding gap remains as Salt Lake City makes a point of its existing commitment to the area and a Medicaid expansion still requires federal signoff.

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

As officers scour Salt Lake City for drug dealers who have scattered after an unprecedented crackdown in the Rio Grande neighborhood, officials are looking for nearly a third of the $67 million they say is needed to fund the two-year effort.

Though Operation Rio Grande is in its third week, a preliminary budget was shared for the first time with media Monday after a closed-door meeting at the Capitol.

The state could pay half of the $21 million gap, House Speaker Greg Hughes said later Monday, and the Draper Republican proposed that Salt Lake City and County could split the remainder evenly. But Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski apparently has yet to agree to that back-of-a-napkin arrangement.

City spokesman Matthew Rojas said the city is actually being asked to pay “many times” more than $5.25 million — given already stepped-up expenses that he said legislative budgeters have counted as being “absorbed” in the city‘s existing budget.

“It represents a significant portion of our budget and a significant challenge for the city.”

Rojas said city staff were working to identify the city‘s total portion of the $67 million.

Biskupski planned to speak to the City Council on Tuesday, Rojas said, as “they have a shared responsibility to the taxpayers of Salt Lake City.”

Meanwhile, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams issued a statement saying public safety and lawlessness are “a very high priority” for the county.

“I will continue working with the County Council to find ways to meet funding needs that will support these important efforts,” McAdams said. “I‘m appreciative of the state’s support to help address this crisis.”

Prompted by a staffer’s grumbling about the city’s lack of buy-in, Hughes said there is a “different level of effort” between the city and county mayors, “but I‘m trying to keep this frail coalition together.”

“To the extent that someone wants to make the argument that one side should pay a larger portion — make the argument,” Hughes said. ”I was hoping that we would have that understood and agreed upon. But I do think that there is no going back on this plan. ... We‘ll get there.”

Addressing west side residents in a Friday night public forum, Biskupski had credited Hughes for agreeing to share the city’s ongoing burden. Over the past four years, she said, the city has spent nearly $50 million in the Rio Grande neighborhood.

“That is a lot of Salt Lake City taxpayer money, and we knew, looking at those dollars, that we could not do this alone, so I am so grateful to the speaker for showing up and saying, ‘I get it,’ and ’We’re here to help, let’s figure this out.’”

Budgeters consider $46 million accounted for — but some of that is from uncertain sources, like the $100 million Medicaid expansion waiver that is awaiting federal approval after being passed by the Legislature in 2015.

And Hughes acknowledged Monday that for other Operation Rio Grande costs — that aren’t among the “things we‘re already spending” — “you still have a county that needs a council‘s approval, and you have a city that needs a council’s approval.”

Projected costs for law enforcement ($19 million) and behavioral health treatment ($19 million) make up the largest chunks of a four-slice Operation Rio Grande pie chart distributed Monday. Jail beds are $15 million, matched by a catchall category labeled ”Housing and Services.”

Unfunded, as of Monday: $7.3 million for law enforcement, $6.2 million for transitional housing, $2.6 million for treatment beds that fall outside the guidelines of the Medicaid waiver, $2.4 million for a new drug court and $1.5 million for more frequent street cleanups.

Hughes had expected that budgetary details would be available after a meeting last Wednesday, but he reported Thursday that ”maybe I was overambitious” to think the budget could be ironed out so soon.

“As we went line by line, there‘s obviously a complexity to it,” he said.

He has frequently cited a string of violent crimes as evidence that drastic action was necessary to reduce lawlessness in the neighborhood, known as much for crime and drug use as it is for its 1,100-bed homeless shelter or the Gateway shopping mall — where Hughes has been loaned a street-level 200 South office to marshal the effort.

More than 100 officers descended on the western edge of Salt Lake City’s downtown earlier this month. In September, the operation’s ”treatment” phase is expected to begin in earnest, with details still to come about a third ”Dignity of Work” employment effort led by Utah Jazz President Steve Starks.

Sixty-one publicly funded treatment beds are expected to be available by the end of September, along with 15 new detox beds. Another 180 residential treatment beds are hoped for by the end of 2017, though one service provider, First Step House, has said that early 2018 may be more realistic, given the need to open another facility.

Other advertised elements of Operation Rio Grande include 10 additional social workers at the Salt Lake City Police Department’s Community Connection Center, a yet-to-come identification card system, and additional prosecutorial and defense resources.

Backlash has been subdued, though the ACLU has thus far graded Operation Rio Grande as incomplete, and residents elsewhere in Salt Lake City have accused law enforcement of driving the wrongdoers into their own neighborhoods.

Speaking Saturday morning at the annual People’s Summit on Poverty, sponsored by Crossroads Urban Center, former Salt Lake City Councilwoman and current Community Advocates Group member Deeda Seed said that Operation Rio Grande is “very poorly thought-out public policy.”

Governments could subsidize hundreds of affordable housing units for the cost of Operation Rio Grande’s law enforcement arm, Seed said — a popular sentiment among Crossroads’ officials, who earlier this year left the county’s homeless services committee because of a perceived lack of interest in housing solutions.

Hughes said Monday that the budget includes money for transitional housing, and that he continues to seek a new “safe space” so that Salt Lake City’s camping ordinance can be constitutionally enforced.

He envisions erecting a perimeter fence around The Road Home’s shelter that would extend east, across a closed-down Rio Grande Street, to facilities owned by Catholic Community Services. Services would be available in the resulting courtyard area, Hughes said, which would require ID card access.

Hughes wants Biskupski to close the street until they can receive statutory approval for a longer-term closure, he said. The sooner, the better, Hughes said, as drug dealers are trying to regain their grip on the area.

“They’re coming back,” he said. “This calm that we’re enjoying is not going to stay unless this plan rolls out, and it needs to roll out now.”