SALT LAKE CITY — In his fifth State of the County address — potentially his last should he win his congressional bid — Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams highlighted 2017 successes, from overcoming challenges while working to reform the county’s homeless system, to maintaining the county’s strong financial standing.
"I am honored to be here today, repeating the words you’ve heard from me before: The state of our county is strong," McAdams said in his speech at the Salt Lake County Government Center Monday.
Over the past year, the mayor was tasked by the Utah Legislature to make a politically damaging decision — to locate a third, 300-bed homeless resource center somewhere else in the county other than Salt Lake City, after the city’s plan to build four homeless resource centers faltered amid neighborhood backlash.
After spending a secret night in the Road Home’s troubled downtown shelter to help mull the decision, McAdams eventually chose a site in South Salt Lake, to the fury of the city’s leaders and residents. At the time, McAdams pledged to not support the center’s groundbreaking until the Utah Legislature passes a bill to create a pool of revenue from other cities to help fund the centers.
On Monday, McAdams repeated that pledge.
"Until the Legislature passes (that bill), we won’t break ground in South Salt Lake," he said.
Though there has been talk of the bill — which House Speaker Greg Hughes has said must pass this session — it hasn’t yet been filed.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, had previously said he hoped it would be filed by the second week of the session (more than two weeks ago). Monday, Eliason said he hopes it will be released by the end of the week.
McAdams said he’s been in talks with legislative leaders, and he’s sure it will pass this session.
"I have faith in our legislative partners, and I’m confident they will succeed and we will be moving forward this spring as planned," he said.
The county and state’s homeless reform system — more than three years in progress — has been a "stubborn and complex social challenge," McAdams said, but the county and Shelter the Homeless is "on track" to break ground this spring on the new centers that will "anchor the radically different approach we’re supporting to address homelessness."
"Over the past three years, we harnessed the goodwill and hard work of many people trying to address homelessness," McAdams said, lauding the work of the Collective Impact on Homelessness Steering Committee he convened and efforts to raise millions in public and private dollars to move away from the "one-size-fits-all model."
The mayor said he’s met "so many people on this journey" but one family experiencing homelessness stands out: a 7-year-old girl named Sammy and her single dad, Gary, who McAdams said fell into homelessness after a health crisis that cost him his construction company.
"It was hard to watch Sammy laughing and drawing pictures while her dad described alarming conditions in the homeless shelter," McAdams said, lauding the move last summer of all families from the downtown shelter to the Road Home’s Midvale shelter.
McAdams highlighted Operation Rio Grande as "our most expansive collaboration (with the state) to date" — leading to about 200 new drug treatment beds. He also lauded Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera’s efforts to reopen Oxbow Jail in July, and Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill’s work on a lawsuit against opioid manufacturers.
"Over and over, those we arrest in Operation Rio Grande tell the story of how prescription painkillers led to heroin addiction," McAdams said. "That is unacceptable and unconscionable, and we will join other Utah counties and communities across the country to stand up and hold the drugmakers accountable."
One of Operation Rio Grande’s arrestees, Destiny Garcia, attended McAdams’ address Monday. Since her arrest on Aug. 21, Garcia began drug treatment and is now housed in the county’s new sober living program after a 10-year heroin and meth addiction.
McAdams introduced her as "one of those who have grabbed hold of this second chance and is working hard to return to a stable, self-reliant life."
"Destiny, we’re proud of your effort and your decision to confront this illness and take responsibility for turning your life around," the mayor said, telling her she has a whole county behind her praying for her success.
Throughout his speech, McAdams also credited numerous employees and department heads for their work, from the health department’s weekly cleanups of Rio Grande street, to the Department of Regional Transportation, Housing and Economic Development for bringing on 1,371 new affordable housing units.
County Council Chairwoman Aimee Winder Newton applauded McAdams for giving credit to the people with "boots on the ground" doing the work. She added, however, the county does face some uncertainty on big issues that are still hurdles.
"There’s still a lot of unknowns with Operation Rio Grande," Newton said. "We hear how great the streets are in Salt Lake City, and yet in my areas that I represent in Murray and Taylorsville and areas along the Jordan River, we’re hearing of some issues still that linger where people have scattered."
That, along with future funding of the homeless centers and Oxbow Jail still must be addressed, "but we’re optimistic," Newton said. She also backed McAdams’ renewed pledge to not support the South Salt Lake homeless site until the bill to fund the centers with revenue from other cities passes the Legislature.
"I don’t think it’s fair for us to have one or two cities that bear the burden," she said. "It makes sense that we’re all in this together."
McAdams also focused on the county’s overall economic standing, applauding county leaders for adopting a "fiscally responsible budget" last year and retaining the county’s triple-A bond ratings.
Looking to the county’s economic future, McAdams also noted the county plans to use a "little-noticed" section in the tax reform legislation passed by Congress last year to help "spread economic opportunity across all communities."
The law creates "opportunity zones," McAdams said, which can use tax incentives to draw "long-term investment to places that struggle with high poverty and sluggish business growth."
McAdams said after his speech that Salt Lake City’s northwest quadrant — which is being eyed by the state for an inland port, causing tension between state and city leaders — has the potential to be "on the top of the list" of areas considered to be "opportunity zones," and he plans to work with city and state leaders to help develop the area for the benefit of the city, county and state.
"We are all in this together," McAdams said. "The lines on the map don’t just divide us. … Our goal is to see prosperity increase at all levels, not just in certain ZIP codes."