‘This is the beginning’: The Salt Lake County mayor creates the Office of Environmental Services to improve air quality

As part of her reorganization of the Salt Lake County government, Mayor Jenny Wilson has created an Office of Environmental Services that she envisions will “elevate” the county’s role in addressing air quality and sustainability.

The new office will consist, for now, of a single person who Wilson said will build partnerships with outside organizations like UCAIR, a statewide clean air partnership, and the Department of Health. But she envisions the county’s effort will grow in future years.

Wilson hopes the office will help position Salt Lake County as “the thought leader and the action leader on practices that support our environment.”

“I think it’s hard for government to — because we work on yearly budgets — sometimes invest in the long term benefits,” she told The Salt Lake Tribune in a recent interview. “I think we’ve done great things over time here. … I think we have a long way to go.”

The county has already worked to downsize its vehicle fleets and to make them more energy efficient, Wilson said. The next steps are to invest in efficient buildings, through installing, for example, more efficient heating and air conditioning systems.

While vehicles are the primary source of emissions for small particulate matter pollutants, buildings are close behind and account for around 39 percent, according to emissions information from UCAIR. And with a projected boom of 1.5 million new people in the state by 2050 — which means more people driving cars and creating emissions — that’s only expected to worsen.

Population growth will bring both challenges and opportunities to Salt Lake County, Wilson said, but it’s important that the government work to ensure quality of life.

“No matter where I went over the past year campaigning, [during] my outreach as a County Council member [and] seeking this office as mayor, people were like, ‘Hey, when are you going to do something about the air?’” she said. “So this is the beginning.”

Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune Jason Dunn of Draper seeks higher, cleaner air as he rides his bike to a peak overlooking the obscured Utah county as air quality continues to deteriorate with inversion conditions trapping cold air on Friday, Feb. 12, 2016.

The money for the new Office of Environmental Services came from funds left after some employees went to work with former mayor and now Congressman Ben McAdams. But Wilson said no money has yet been appropriated for specific projects associated with the position.

“I’m still living off of Ben McAdams’ budget, so unfortunately I didn’t enter at a time where I could have made a case to the council myself," she said.

New Salt Lake County Councilwoman Shireen Ghorbani, who took over Wilson’s at-large seat, has advocated for the creation of a team at the county that could better quantify the government’s energy use and said she thinks this is a step in the right direction.

Ghorbani said she would like to see the county complete a benchmark study of its building emissions to help municipalities move toward sustainability, as well.

Salt Lake City has already pledged that its government will be powered by 50 percent renewable energy by 2020 and 100 percent by renewables by 2032. The city also plans to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2040 in an effort to combat poor air quality.

Wilson said efforts similar to those are “absolutely” on the table and that Salt Lake City may serve as a guide for her team to look at environmental issues in the county.

“It’s time that we elevate our conversation here at Salt Lake County to more of a focus on environmental,” she said.

The new mayor has made a number of other changes to the organizational structure at the county since taking office at the end of January. The county now has three deputy mayors rather than four in an effort to streamline services, Wilson said. Darrin Casper will oversee finance and administration, Erin Litvack will work on county services and Catherine Kanter will lead regional operations.

Kanter, who ran for a Salt Lake County Council at-large seat in 2016, and Mike Reberg, who comes to Salt Lake County from a position in Salt Lake City and will serve as the associate deputy mayor of regional operations, are awaiting consent of their appointments from the County Council.