Mayor Ben McAdams touts Operation Rio Grande, is sure Legislature will deliver funding help to areas near new homeless centers

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams delivers the State of County address in the council chambers Tuesday, Feb. 13.

Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams cited progress on reducing homelessness in his annual State of the County speech Tuesday, but reaffirmed that the county would not build a planned homeless resource center in South Salt Lake until the state passes legislation to address the impact of such facilities on their host communities.

In a 29-minute address before an audience of mostly county officials and employees, the mayor also highlighted the cross-jurisdiction Operation Rio Grande initiative begun last August to fight crime and drug addiction in the homeless population concentrated in downtown Salt Lake City and expand social services for those in need.

“We knew that we could not just arrest our way out of the problem,” McAdams said, later adding: “Dozens of those who were arrested in Operation Rio Grande found out that police were not just hauling them off to jail, but instead, they were offering to them an alternative.”

But, he added, “We will continue to keep jail beds open for those who need to be behind bars.”

The mayor cataloged government achievements last year, calling out and crediting responsible county employees in the library system, public health, parks and recreation, social services, public works, and transportation, among other departments.

“I really wanted to spend a lot of the speech to focus on them, to say thank you for the work that they’ve done,” he said later.

He highlighted collaboration with the District Attorney’s Office on pending legal action against opioid makers, who are blamed for fueling the nationwide epidemic of drug abuse and deaths through aggressive sales and marketing of their products. He cited work by the Sheriff’s Office toward reopening the Oxbow jail in July.

And he highlighted a “little-noticed section” in tax-reform legislation Congress passed in December that created Opportunity Zones where tax incentives can be used to attract investment in economically challenged areas.

If they succeed, the Opportunity Zones “could help revitalize neighborhoods that are currently starved for investment,” he said.

On housing and homelessness, McAdams noted efforts with the county Housing Authority to build up the affordable housing trust fund, and by the Department of Housing and Economic Development to add and preserve affordable housing through rehabilitation and hazard remediation, such as lead-paint removal.

He said the county was “on track to break ground this spring” on three new homeless resource centers but wouldn’t move forward “until the Legislature passes a bill to address the impact on cities that host resource centers.”

“I have faith in our legislative partners and I’m confident they will succeed and we will be moving forward this spring as planned.”

McAdams, a Democrat, made no mention of his bid to unseat Republican Mia Love in Utah’s 4th Congressional District.

County Council Chairwoman Aimee Winder Newton credited McAdams for taking time to acknowledge the “boots on the ground” employees for the achievements he cited.

She also praised his comments on dealing with homelessness. She cited unknown impacts and “lingering concerns” about how Operation Rio Grande affected surrounding communities by scattering the downtown homeless population, as well as worries about the homeless resource center impacts and what the state might do to mitigate them.

“There are some things that we look forward to seeing how they progress,” she said.