Salt Lake County soon could see once-in-a-generation spending on affordable housing, aid for the homeless, water conservation and more.
Mayor Jenny Wilson, a Democrat, presented her budget for the latest round of American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, dollars to the Republican-dominated County Council on Tuesday. Congress adopted the $1.9 trillion stimulus in 2021 as a response to the coronavirus pandemic. The county spent a large portion of its first installment last year, mostly on vaccinations and the health department. Now, with infections subsiding, county leaders are poised to use the remaining funds on other significant public benefits.
“We will be following the need and mandate provided by the federal government,” Wilson said, “to return prosperity to communities ... and also address health demands presented by COVID.”
The county has $225 million to spend and not a lot of time to do it — the U.S. Treasury Department has set a deadline to deploy the money by the end of 2024 (although the county can continue using the funds through 2026 if they are dedicated to specific projects).
There is plenty of need — officials received 300 requests for initiatives that totaled $600 million.
The mayor said she selected projects with the “most community impact.”
“We’re in a pretty good position compared to many other cities and counties,” Wilson said. “Because of that, we have a generational opportunity to do some amazing things.”
One of the county’s biggest needs, which has plagued residents since before the pandemic, is more affordable housing. Wilson’s proposal dedicates $20 million to the county’s housing trust fund. The Salt Lake Valley is about 23,000 housing units short, officials reported Tuesday. Construction costs, meanwhile, have jumped by 20%, jeopardizing planned affordable housing projects.
“There’s some urgency here,” Dina Blaes, director of the county’s Office of Regional Development, told the council.
An influx of cash would help developers keep up with those rising costs so future housing remains affordable and good quality. The housing trust fund also would provide grants to community and nonprofit housing organizations, as well as for-profit housing providers.
“We are not coming to you saying this is going to be the end-all-be-all solution for all the housing problems,” Blaes said. “We get that we have to be part of a broader network that’s having this conversation and trying to solve these problems.”
Along with the trust, the mayor intends to channel $6 million to housing for those in need of medical services, especially those struggling with homelessness. Another $1.5 million would go to the county’s Green and Healthy Homes program, which helps residents who need costly and vital repairs.
Wilson further aims to spend $14 million on economic development.
“While Salt Lake County’s economy is strong ... we still see challenges with intergenerational poverty,” the mayor said, adding that wage gaps for retail, hospitality and other essential workers widened during the pandemic.
Through partnerships with the state, the county would create a program called Workforce Inclusion and Successful Employment, or WISE. During a five-year pilot, WISE would help up to 2,000 underserved students access resources to graduate college and gain employment.
The county would also use ARPA funds to continue the small-business grant program it built during the pandemic, rolling it into a new Salt Lake Center of Opportunity Partnership, or CO-OP.
The mayor proposes $700,000 dedicated to water conservation, with a goal of encouraging residents to cut back consumption by 11%.
“We owe it to future generations, to our children, to our grandchildren,” she said, “to provide for them the quality of life we’ve had.”
Wilson added she wants a “comprehensive irrigation system overhaul” for the county as well, and she pegged $3.5 million for parks and recreation irrigation pipes along with $2.1 million for a water-efficient landscaping project at the Division of Youth Services.
The conservation investments drew praise from Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini, who also spoke on behalf of the League of Cities and Towns.
“This is a historic drought, even drier than the times of the Anasazi,” Silvestrini said. “... Water is top of mind for us.”
Along with water infrastructure, the mayor plans to steer a $38 million toward deferred maintenance. Additional projects would include remodeling the Kearns Senior Center and the Glendale area’s Sunday Anderson Senior Center, repairing canals for flood control, replacing a jail elevator and enhancing security at the district attorney’s office.
“I hope years from now, when none of us are sitting in these seats,” Wilson told the County Council, “we can look back at the work we’ve done [and say] we were able to take advantage of a generational opportunity in the right way.”
Still, it doesn’t appear all the mayor’s proposals will get the council’s backing.
Ahead of Wilson’s presentation, council member Dave Alvord posted on Twitter that ARPA was a “‘Biden-Bucks’ Bonanza” — referring to President Joe Biden — insisting it came with “strings attached” that prevented “conservatives” from lowering taxes and paying off debt.
Alvord added that he, “in good conscience, cannot support any spending that will grow government.”
On Tuesday, the council approved projects like canal repair, senior center overhauls and water infrastructure projects with mostly unanimous votes.
“We are still considering the other projects, but ... I don’t expect them to all get a green light,” said council chair Laurie Stringham, noting that she does not want to add additional programs and ongoing expenses to the county budget.
“We have $900 million in deferred maintenance” at the county, the chair said. “That is our main focus.”