Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson reflects on ‘tough’ choices in State of the County address

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson makes a comment at the grand opening the new Salt Lake City area office for the U.S. Census Bureau, Oct. 1, 2019.

Reflecting on her first full year in office, Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said she “hit the ground running,” garnering increased funding in her first budget for public safety and domestic violence and taking part in an “unprecedented” collaborative effort to address homelessness across the county.

But she had to make some “tough” choices, as well, including the proposal of an unpopular property tax increase the council approved at the end of last year.

“Looking back, I had to do something that no new mayor wants to do: I had to propose a tax increase,” she said.

It “kept me up at night,” Wilson shared, but she said she ultimately felt the approved 7.8% hike was the right call in aligning the county’s budget for the future.

“I think in the end we all feel pretty good about where we are,” she said. “We did not have to decrease our revenue that was so critical for operation and maintenance of our facilities, our parks. We were able to do a little bit of a salary increase, as I mentioned, at our jail, and we were able to provide some additional support to [Salt Lake County District Attorney] Sim Gill’s office, who prosecutes domestic violence cases.”

Wilson decided this year to abandon the traditional State of the County address, usually made at the beginning of each year in the council chambers before employees, residents, reporters and County Council members. Instead, she dropped the speech Thursday as the first episode of her new podcast, County Conversations, which will examine a variety of topics and issues affecting the county.

The nearly 40 minute podcast, which the mayor hopes will bring her State of the County address to a broader audience, looks at both the county’s successes in 2019 as well as its challenges for the coming year in a much more conversational format than the usual pre-written speech. The episode also includes interviews with two County Council members.

As was the theme of her first State of the County speech last year, given just weeks after she was appointed to the mayor’s seat, Wilson came back again and again to the effects of the county’s booming growth.

“I don't think there's anybody in 2020 that doesn't think about how growth is impacting their lives in some way in Salt Lake County,” she said. “And, you know, it impacts things that I think the general public may not sit around and think about but we certainly do.”

Growth is one of the exacerbating factors behind a variety of major issues facing the county, Wilson said, including transportation, affordable housing, homelessness and aging services.

Amid a massive transition in homeless services in Salt Lake County, Wilson said her team is “deeply committed” to helping the county’s unsheltered populations in conjunction with city and state partners.

She acknowledged some “hiccups” with capacity at the Salt Lake City area’s three new homeless resource centers, which she attributed to a longer-than-expected length of stay for homeless clients, but praised the creation of a temporary overnight shelter in Salt Lake City’s Sugar House neighborhood as a way to address those challenges.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) One week after the announcement of a new winter overflow homeless shelter, the Sugar House Temporary Shelter opened Jan. 23, 2020. Following an intensive effort by Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County, the Department of Workforce Services, Shelter the Homeless and numerous other partners, the site of the old Deseret Industries building at 2234 S. Highland Drive will be open at night through April 15.

“I think it's important that listeners understand that the issues are being addressed and mitigated on a daily basis and we're still in a transition,” she said. “I haven't seen a coalition actually this connected in my time in public life. And I really believe that a committed community of government, private foundation leaders, businesses, community leaders, the public, we've all come together to solve this.”

In addressing a lack of affordable housing in the county, which experts say is a major contributor to homelessness, Wilson said she and her team are connected to developers, housing coalitions and federal programs to help alleviate the problem.

“But we haven't seen a lot of reform at the federal level and that's led to some challenges,” she noted.

In the meantime, single-family homes in Salt Lake County reached an all-time record median price during the three months ending in September — above $381,500. Those realities have spurred, in part, a historic spate of investment in new apartment buildings as younger people become more likely rent than buy.

But high-density apartment developments come with their own problems, particularly pushback from residents in undeveloped parts of the county concerned about traffic and a loss of their way of life. One of the most controversial is Olympia Hills, a planned housing development in the southwest portion of the county that is currently under consideration by the County Council.

Wilson said the first version of that development, which she voted for but was ultimately vetoed by then-Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, was done without enough “communication,” “input from the public,” and, “frankly, not enough thought.”

At the time of the original vote, Wilson praised the plan as part of the reality of county population growth and an acceptance of greater density in residential neighborhoods.

The version currently before the council, known as Olympia Hills 2.0, is the result of “a lot of work” with the planning team at Salt Lake County to bring about a “much improved,” development with lower density and more open space, she said.

“Additionally, there’s a good mix of housing stock, including some larger parcels as well as some area that you do have more of a townhouse style development and a commercial center, including jobs on site, which is a much needed factor in that area of the valley,” Wilson argued. “So all of that is now in the hands of council for consideration … and we’ll see where it takes us.”

In the podcast, Salt Lake County Council Chair Max Burdick, a Republican, and Councilwoman Ann Granato, a Democrat, both praised Wilson’s direction of the county over the last year and for the “value-driven” initiatives she has brought forward.

But Burdick, who also applauded the county’s work on mental and behavioral health services and homelessness, said there is “much more we need to do.”

In the end, he, too, came back to growth, noting that the issues it creates will be top of mind for the council in the coming year.

“With an aging population, fixed incomes, incredible growth, these challenges are not only going to stay with us, but they’re going to grow and our challenges are going to grow too,” he said. “I don’t know if we’ll ever get ahead of it, but certainly keep up with it and to do what we can with the resources that we have.”