Tribune Editorial: The joint effort to clean up the Rio Grande area is something to be proud of

Operation Rio Grande a long-term effort

A helicopter swarmed the downtown area Monday as police and government officials began a three-phase multi-agency operation to clean up the Rio Grande district. 

In recent months, the Rio Grande area has become a crime-infested, dangerous, tent-city with increasing drug activity and general lawlessness. A visiting professional baseball player was attacked. People have been murdered. A traffic accident unnecessarily became a death sentence.

It was no secret that a crackdown was coming. Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes set up a “war room” and Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams conducted his own personal reconnaissance mission. Gov. Gary Herbert pulled stakeholders together into a room, appointed Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox as a “czar,” and put everyone to work.

Within 8-12 days, instead of 6-9 months, project leaders organized a plan. In the first phase, Cox tasked Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski with finding jail beds so police could make arrests. Biskupski found 300 additional jail beds in the Weber and Davis county jail systems.

The Odyssey House deserves credit here. Odyssey House will continue to run CATS programming, which provides substance abuse treatment to inmates, even in two separate jails.

In the second phase McAdams is tasked with finding additional treatment beds for mental health treatment and addiction recovery. The third phase is job training and includes participation by Utah’s Department of Workforce Services.

The parties are invested in a successful outcome. Hughes especially believes criminal justice reform depends on a successful operation — if we’re going to treat individuals instead of jail them, then we actually have to treat them.

But the operation is relying on a small-scale Medicaid expansion waiver the federal government still has not approved. For Utah’s $30 million investment, the federal government will hopefully be contributing $70 million, targeted at this exact population for mental health treatment and drug rehabilitation.

But what if the federal government doesn’t grant the waiver? Is the Utah Legislature ready and willing to find the funds elsewhere?

Officials say the state, county and city are all in for funding the effort. But an easier fix would have been to approve Medicaid expansion in 2015. It’s hard to compare $100 million to hundreds of millions of federal dollars under Medicaid expansion. This was a missed opportunity.

The effort, though, really is a moment to be proud of in Utah’s record of collaborative politics. Especially since we haven’t seen a lot of collaboration lately. Here, we have multiple organizations across multiple jurisdictions working together to provide law enforcement, mental health treatment, housing assistance and crucial job training. It’s a lofty vision that exceeds a short-term Band-aid of rounding up criminals in a never-ending drug trade.

Kudos to those committed to a successful operation. Lives depend on it.