D.A. warns failure to hire additional prosecutors could hamper Operation Rio Grande

Request for three prosecutors just the beginning — with projected need for 100-plus new county employees, mostly for sheriff to reopen Oxbow Jail.<br>

( AP file photo) In this Sept. 30, 2014, file photo, Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill speaks to reporters during a news conference in Salt Lake City.

The flood of arrests since the August launch of Operation Rio Grande — the massive crackdown on crime followed by attempts to connect addicts and homeless people with treatment and services — has left the Salt Lake County district attorney’s office pleading for some immediate help.

So far, 367 new felony cases have resulted from the arrests, which also triggered the processing of 711 outstanding warrants — for a total of 1,078 new cases, according to District Attorney Sim Gill.

A lone prosecutor is assigned to them all, says Gill, and the numbers grow daily.

He wants to immediately hire two additional prosecutors and a paralegal to manage the workload, which is only expected to increase with continued daily arrests in the Rio Grande neighborhood around the state’s largest homeless shelter.

Taking on the three new employees would cost just over $313,000, Gill told the Salt Lake County Council this week.

He warned that without that infusion: “We will not be able to sustain our participation in Operation Rio Grande to give the level of support consistent with the law-enforcement efforts that are going on.”

A majority of the Council, however, balked at approving the funds now, outside of the the body’s normal budget cycle that begins in November.

“We’re not adamantly opposed to giving you what you are asking,” Steve DeBry, the council chairman, said. “We’re just saying we want to wait until we start the budget process so that we can look at everything … you know figure out where our ducks are in a row and where our priorities are.”

And there are plenty of ducks.

Salt Lake County is projecting it will need roughly $30 million to cover expenses over the two-year life of Operation Rio Grande — 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.

Gill’s request for three employees represents only a tiny fraction of the “north of 100” new full-time jobs county agencies are expected to need in order to meet the increased demands of Operation Rio Grande, Darrin Casper, the mayor’s chief financial officer, said.

The number, he added, is “conservative” and could go up, as there are still some unknowns.

For now, the 100-plus projection includes 97 personnel for Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera, so the shuttered Oxbow jail can be opened in mid-2018.

Additional jobs will be need be filled in criminal-justice services, which conducts the assessments that determine drug-court eligibility, behavioral-health services and at the Salt Lake Legal Defenders, which gets most of its nearly $15 million budget from the county.

Those anticipated budget demands all will compete with other needs not related to Operation Rio Grande, DeBry said.

“It’s not lost on me that we are going into a tight budget cycle,” Gill acknowledged.

The D.A.’s funding request will be on the Council agenda again Tuesday, but if the council continues to delay, money for new hires won’t be available until January.

If forced to wait, Gill said, he’ll scale back the effort of the single assigned prosecutor, shifting away from the “invested prosecution” model he agreed to employ as part of Operation Rio Grande.

Specifically that means dropping back from the intensified tracking of individuals as they move through drug court, which defers criminal prosecution for three years so that addiction problems can be addressed.

“Is it going to be a fatal blow? No,” Gill said. “It will have a significant impact and will diminish the return on investment that all of the rest of the partners have already made.”

“This is a policy call,” Gill said. “We are partners, but we can only support this to the extent that we have the resources.”