While Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson gave the county a clean bill of financial health and praised its momentum on a number of milestones Tuesday, she also promised to address booming growth as a priority.
The remarks during her first State of the County speech come less than two months after she was sworn into the mayor’s office, filling the seat left vacant by Rep. Ben McAdams after his election to Congress.
“Standing here on Day 49, I can assure you Salt Lake County has excellent systems, exemplary employees and is an incredibly efficient government,” she said Tuesday. “With our essential services, we are the backbone of our broader community by running elections, providing essential revenue, tax and record services and running a jail. But we are also its heart, serving the elderly, the young, the needy and providing stability and true joy to families.”
She lauded the county’s AAA bond rating and celebrated a number of “milestones” the county has achieved over the last year, including spreading arts programming throughout the county with construction beginning on the new Mid-Valley Performing Arts Center in Taylorsville and the work on expanding, remodeling or creating new libraries in Kearns, South Jordan, Holladay and South Salt Lake.
Wilson also cited a number of victories during the most recent legislative session. The Legislature gave approval to both an expungement bill the county had pushed, which will provide automatic record clearance for low-level offenders who haven’t reoffended, and a measure to create harsher penalties for hate crimes, which Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill has long lobbied for. Those are now awaiting the governor’s signature.
The other major issue Wilson identified in her speech was population growth, which is booming both in Salt Lake County and across the state.
During the state legislative session, a number of elected officials from the southwest portion of the county threw their support behind a bill that would allow communities to strike out and create their own county without a majority vote from the county they would leave behind. Though the bill ultimately failed in the House, it lay bare the discontent among these communities with what they see as disproportionately low funding from the county, especially for their mounting transportation needs.
Wilson just finished more than a year of marathon campaigning, first for U.S. Senate — a bid she lost to Sen. Mitt Romney — and then on a smaller scale for mayor, a seat appointed by members of the Salt Lake County Democratic Party’s Central Committee. During that time of “on the ground” connecting with constituents, Wilson told The Salt Lake Tribune that she developed a vision of her priorities moving forward.T
Near the top of the list, the county needs to face challenges from population growth, which is booming.
“We need to assure growth is our friend, not our enemy,” Wilson said during her speech. “As explosive growth threatens quality of life, it is our duty as a regional government to drive regional solutions through planning, resource management and transportation solutions. Southwest Valley residents, I have heard you.”
To assuage some of their concerns, Wilson said the county’s regional development team has begun an “extensive existing conditions study” to understand the growth on the west side of the valley and will begin a public engagement process for a general plan of the west bench.
Riverton Mayor Trent Staggs, who has been outspoken about some of the concerns in the southwestern portion of the valley, said he thinks the mayor’s vision for working on issues key to this area is a “great step.”
“I think it’s encouraging that [the] County Council and county leaders are wanting to engage and learn more about the southwest quadrant and how they can work together with myself and other mayors in the southwest as we conduct our visioning study and see the impacts of development in our cities on the west bench and what that is going to do potentially to the quality of life,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune on Tuesday.
The mayors in this portion of the county also recently announced they are amassing $250,000 to pay for a joint regional planning effort, designed to create a plan for integrating the six cities’ roadways and transit systems. Salt Lake County has put $100,000 toward the study, and the cities have contributed $25,000 while they seek a grant to cover the remainder.
Wilson said she would direct her Office of Regional Development to focus on economic growth and incentives “that don’t just reward corporations for placing headquarters here but help economic growth within our various communities and give more opportunities to our residents from the bottom up, rather than the top down.”
She also addressed a number of planned development projects that have sparked opposition and frustration across the county.
Community members have raised concerns about the environmental impacts of the inland port, a massive distribution hub development planned for Salt Lake City’s westernmost side. On the other end of the county, residents worry about Olympia Hills, a high-density community development proposed west of Herriman that could add as many as 22,000 residents to that growing area.
“We need to guarantee that new projects, like the prison-site development, Olympia Hills and the inland port provide a net benefit to our community and address potential negative impacts,” Wilson said. “That means good planning and addressing environmental, resource and transportation concerns.”
She said there would be an “invigorated focus on housing” under her leadership as the state faces an affordable housing crunch, as well as delivering transportation options “that make it easier to visit grandma or to get to work on time.”
Wilson said another thing the county needs is to do a better job of educating residents about what it does.
“As I travel to our various county communities, townships and cities, I’ve heard this: ‘Hello, Mayor Wilson; I thought my mayor was [South Jordan Mayor] Dawn Ramsey,’” she recounted. “Or, “I thought my mayor was [Millcreek Mayor] Jeff Silvestrini.’ [Or] ‘What does the county do anyway?’ And in my own Salt Lake City neighborhood, ‘When will you take care of my broken sidewalk?’”
With 18 cities and five townships, she said there’s bound to be confusion. To combat that, she’s planning to host five town halls over the next few months to engage and listen to residents and to bring a plan to the County Council to launch a new website that she says would better serve both internal functions and residents. The county also plans to launch an app to help residents more easily find the services they need, she said.
In an effort to achieve these goals and streamline its efforts, Wilson initiated a restructuring of county government offices earlier this month. The county now has three deputy mayors rather than four, new faces leading its regional operations department, and a new Office of Environmental Services, which Wilson said she hopes will “elevate” the county’s role in addressing air quality and sustainability.
Wilson vowed to “work closely with and support” the County Council to achieve her proposals but told The Salt Lake Tribune she doesn’t plan to seek any additional money from them in this budget cycle.
Council Chairman Richard Snelgrove, a Republican, praised the mayor on Tuesday for focusing on growth and quality of life issues. He noted that while he doesn’t have any specific concerns about any of her proposals, the council will have to consider their fiscal impact in the future.
“As chairman and as council members, I’m sure we look forward to working with her and making input where we feel it’s appropriate,” he said. "Possibly improving on some things. Any input we have would be construed as constructive criticism. But it’s bold, it’s ambitious, it’s a good message and the people of Salt Lake County will be well served.”
Wilson will serve through 2020 as the first Democratic woman to hold the mayor’s seat and has already committed to running for re-election. She served previously in the County Council, becoming in 2004 the first woman elected to the body and serving for six years before successfully running again as an at-large member in 2014.