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Salt Lake City mayor dings Legislature on COVID and homelessness — ‘when the state stepped back, we stepped up’

Erin Mendenhall cites progress on air quality and the capital’s efforts on housing and homelessness, but says Utah’s Capitol Hill needs to do more to help.

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall gives the State of the City address at City Hall on Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022.

A year ago, as Mayor Erin Mendenhall gave her annual address to Salt Lake City residents, there was a sense of optimism. The coronavirus, it seemed, was in the rearview and the mayor looked forward to an era of healing.

Instead, her 2022 State of the City speech Tuesday night felt a bit like deja vu. The mayor highlighted her efforts to address a plethora of issues that have faced the city since long before the pandemic began: affordable housing, homelessness, air quality and equity. And COVID-19 continues to bog down the city’s efforts to move forward, especially with the highly contagious omicron variant causing unprecedented levels of infection, so much so that the mayor bookended her speech with discussions of the pandemic.

“I had hoped to deliver this address before a room full of vaccinated and masked community leaders,” the mayor said at the beginning of her speech to an audience of mostly City Council members and media. “... But the surge in COVID-19 cases has made that impossible.

“Just as it did last year.”

Still, the mayor’s address remained bullish, and she called on residents to empower themselves in the year ahead — to step up and drive down the coronavirus’s spread, to do their part to make a dent in pollution, and to rally state leaders to help house the unsheltered.

COVID 19: From ‘acute crisis’ to political punching bag

The mayor noted that the crisis brought by the coronavirus demanded creativity and “boldness” from elected leaders, a call to which she responded. When state lawmakers passed the pandemic “endgame” legislation last year, essentially cutting city and county executives’ ability to respond to ever-changing public health demands, Mendenhall created her own citywide order instead. Despite some speculation, that order ultimately saw no legal challenges from state officials.

Then, just before the school year started, they mayor ordered face masks for schools even as the Salt Lake County Council essentially banned any mandates in the county. That, too, faced no official challenges.

“When the state stepped back,” Mendenhall said, “we stepped up.”

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall gives the State of the City address at City Hall on Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022.

Still, the mayor acknowledged the politicization of COVID-19 and its rapid spread this winter mean the virus is now likely endemic. Just this week, the Legislature overturned a mask mandate from the Salt Lake County Council, one that had won bipartisan support due to fears of overwhelmed hospitals and understaffed essential services.

“Our government is shifting from looking at COVID as an acute crisis to treating it as a chronic condition,” Mendenhall said, noting the virus remains potentially lethal to the unvaccinated and immunocompromised — despite local politics. “But the bitter reality is that a sudden, miraculous end to this pandemic is not coming, and, frankly, the city government is running out of ways to slow the spread of the virus.”

The mayor said personal responsibility among residents was one of the last and best tools the city has in its arsenal.

“If you’re vaccinated, get your booster and keep those masks on in indoor public spaces,” Mendenhall said. “... Please don’t wait until it’s too late.”

Air quality wins

Despite those highly visible clashes with state and county leaders over masking and public health orders, the mayor shared a number of accomplishments over the past 12 months. Mendenhall first ran for public office, starting with the City Council, out of a sense of dread over the Salt Lake Valley’s persistent air pollution and its effects on health.

Last year, she fulfilled a campaign promise of planting the seed for a new urban forest. The city has planted 2,000 trees to date in her two years in office, mostly on the west side, which has the duel benefit of cleaning air pollution and moving the dial on environmental justice.

“During my campaign for mayor, I called out a staggering geographic inequity in the city’s canopy,” Mendenhall said. “West-side neighborhoods suffer worse air quality than the east side but have shockingly fewer trees.”

The mayor also touted the addition of new air-quality monitors in the city, through a partnership with the University of Utah, along with another partnership with the county to fund more real-time monitors mounted on electric buses.

“That good information is coming,” she said, “and will soon be available in a real-time online dashboard.”

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall gives the State of the City address at City Hall on Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022.

Buildings, another source of particulate pollution in the valley, will need to be emission-free by 2023 for new projects if they receive city funding, due to a policy pushed by the mayor and adopted by the council in December. The city further signed on to an 80-megawatt solar project under construction in Tooele County to meet the energy needs of public buildings.

“It will generate almost 100% of the electricity needed to power Salt Lake City’s public buildings,” Mendenhall said, “City Hall, our libraries, our police and fire stations, and our office buildings around town.”

The mayor again called on residents to take their own personal initiative to improve air quality, pointing to a study during 2020′s pandemic lockdowns that showed a significant reduction in particulate pollution and the tailpipe emissions that cause it.

“The single biggest cause of our poor air quality,” she said, “is still largely out of [the city’s] hands: 42% of the pollution choking our air comes from cars and trucks.”

She outlined city-sponsored initiatives to help residents make more environmentally conscious travel choices. Throughout February, all Utah Transit Authority fares will be free due to an effort led by the capital’s mayor. Salt Lake City is also continuing its incentives to swap out gas-guzzling lawn equipment for cleaner electric-powered mowers. The mayor is working with the airport to provide free TRAX rides for those with plane tickets.

And the mayor announced another partnership with UTA for an on-demand ride service to connect underserved neighborhoods to public transit.

The mayor touted the service as “cheaper than an Uber or a Lyft,” and said the pilot program will initially focus on the west side.

“UTA On Demand is a great step toward the more equitable public transit system Salt Lake City residents deserve,” Mendenhall said. “And you’ll see more of it across the city in the future.”

Mendenhall further announced a “brand-new cooperative” among 14 cities and Rocky Mountain Power to bring “100% renewable energy” to the entire Salt Lake City area by 2030. She did not provide further details about the project.

Homelessness

The mayor also outlined the housing crisis that continues to pummel Utah’s capital. She reported a shortage of 18,000 units in Salt Lake City, a rental vacancy rate of less than 2%, and homes for sale getting snatched up by buyers in an average of six days.

“I know some residents wish the city could impose a ceiling on rental rates,” Mendenhall said, “but state law forbids cities from enacting any kind of rent control.”

Despite six affordable housing projects the city took on last year, and $6.5 million in investments earmarked, the city is set to add barely 1,000 affordable units in the years ahead. She urged state lawmakers to adopt measures for inclusionary zoning to “diversify the housing supply across the state.”

Mendenhall further noted that the state’s housing affordability crisis was fueling a homelessness crisis, and a lack of action was forcing the city to take on the burden of solving a statewide problem.

Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall gives the State of the City address at City Hall on Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022.

“The current imbalance,” she warned, “is simply not sustainable for Salt Lake City taxpayers.”

The mayor echoed a sentiment she shared at her address last year — that when and if the coronavirus and public divisiveness die down, a return to “normal” isn’t an option.

“That’s because ‘normal’ wasn’t good for everybody, ‘normal’ wasn’t safe for everybody,” Mendenhall said. “’... We can and we must aspire to do better; to improve; to keep innovating; to build a government that works for everyone.”

She shared similar frustrations in August, when she asked state leaders to heed the call from the Salt Lake Valley Coalition to End Homelessness to add 300 new beds by the winter along with public safety assistance.

“Those services have still not been offered,” Mendenhall said. Instead, “we offered city money to help pay for overflow beds anywhere in Salt Lake County.”

The mayor praised the compassion and generosity of Salt Lakers, and again called on them — and other Utahns — to act.

“Because state leaders and the leaders of so many other municipalities believe Salt Lake City will always step up, they feel comfortable standing back,” Mendenhall said. “... So today I am calling on the leaders of cities and towns around the state, and indeed all Utahns, to reach out to their representatives on Capitol Hill and urge them to increase the state’s investment in its homelessness and housing crisis.”

The mayor also praised residents for their endurance and grit.

“Our city has been tested these last two years, but we are rising to the occasion,” Mendenhall said. “The people of this city are resilient, and we have an incredible future in front of us.”

To watch the mayor’s full address, which also discussed public safety, housing affordability and a recap of measures taken to address the pandemic to date, visit Salt Lake City government’s YouTube or Facebook pages.

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