Salt Lake City leaders seeking Legislature's help in addressing air quality, homelessness
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's capital city, a blue dot in a sea of red, isn't taking a very conservative approach to the 2016 Legislature.
First-year Mayor Jackie Biskupski and the Salt Lake City Council are asking state lawmakers to help address two of the Wasatch Front's most daunting issues: homelessness and air quality.
And then there's the pending move of the Utah State Prison to a site west of Salt Lake City International Airport.
A year ago, city leaders waged a losing battle with the Utah Legislature to keep the prison out of Salt Lake City. This year, they're urging lawmakers to find the best possible spot for the prison on the already identified 4,000-acre property, a location that protects the environment and the city's economic development opportunities in the area.
Neither Biskupski nor her newly appointed deputy chief of staff, David Litvack, are strangers to the state Legislature. Both are former state lawmakers.
Litvack, who served as House minority leader for four of his 12 years in office, will be the mayor's legislative liaison during the session.
"I feel good about what we can accomplish, but I'm also realistic," he said. "These are difficult issues. But it's important to tackle them — the real issues that are affecting our city, our residents and our communities."
In partnership with Salt Lake County and other stakeholders, Salt Lake City is requesting $27 million from the Utah Legislature to fund new homeless shelters and services.
Of that request, $20 million would be one-time funding for two new shelters, and the other $7 million would be ongoing funding for prevention programs and services.
Biskupski has said the city and county should no longer shoulder the burden of the state's homeless people alone — financially or geographically. She and the City Council, as well as Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams, support a "scattered sites" approach to locating the new shelters — one for families with children and one for single adults — along the Wasatch Front.
"It's important to us that the solution and conversation continues to be regional and statewide," Litvack said. "We understand and believe that Salt Lake City is not the only solution. It can't be. It doesn't serve families, children and individuals well. They shouldn't have to uproot themselves from their communities in order to come to Salt Lake City to receive resources."
City Council Chairman James Rogers said Utah's capital "desperately" needs the state's help in serving the homeless.
"The $27 million would do wonders for the homeless population," Rogers said. "But we hope for the best and plan on the worst. My hope is (state lawmakers) will fund the entire $27 million, and if they don't, then we'll work with what they're willing to do."
House Majority Leader Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, said lawmakers acknowledge Salt Lake's need for help with serving the homeless, but the request comes in a year when other expensive issues, such as education and water conservation, will be contending for state dollars.
"The ask is an important one, but it's a significant amount of money," Dunnigan said. "Our revenues are down from last year, so it's going to have to go through the same prioritization as other requests. There are many asks that have already been created for this session that way exceed the amount of money we have."
Dunnigan said he believes legislators will be able to make some compromises to accommodate Salt Lake City's request, but it might have to be split over several years.
House Minority Leader Brian King, D-Salt Lake City, said the city's biggest challenge this year will likely be its $27 million request to address homelessness.
"It's going to be a heavy lift," King said. "But I think it can be done in increments. There's room for compromise."
Litvack acknowledged there's "no quick fix" for the Salt Lake Valley's air quality, but it's certainly not something city leaders can solve themselves.
"There's no silver bullet," he said. "So this is going to be an ongoing focus of (Biskupski's) administration in partnership with other stakeholders and the Legislature."
Litvack said the new mayor and her team will be paying close attention to a bill being sponsored by Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, to update the state building codes.
"This bill is a critical part of addressing air quality," Litvack said. "When buildings are built, they're built to last a long time. So having the most updated building codes to reflect the most updated technology and efficient appliances have long-term impacts on air quality."
But Dunnigan said he isn't sure how much progress legislators will make on that bill.
"Many people support having more efficient buildings, but then others also weigh the costs," he said. "So I don't know where it will end up. It was worked on last session, but nothing really came to fruition."
The Salt Lake City Council and then-Mayor Ralph Becker adamantly opposed the Legislature's decision to relocate the prison to Salt Lake City, and they vowed to explore legal action if possible.
Now, City Council members and the Biskupski's administration are taking a new approach.
"After consulting with our attorney's office, we don't think at this point we have any grounds for a fight with the prison," Litvack said. "What's critical for us at this point is that we are a part of the conversation about the impact and opportunities it creates for us as a city."
The prison will require about 500 acres, a portion of the 4,000-acre site chosen near I-80 and 7200 West. Litvack said city leaders hope to persuade lawmakers to position the facility on the property in the least impactful location.
If the prison is placed on the east side of the site, Litvack said city leaders are concerned it could cause potential for environmental contamination by disturbing a former landfill.
"Building on the west portion has the opportunity to help protect the environment, and it could act as a barrier to further development of the wetlands, actually helping to conserve sensitive areas," Litvack said. "But it would also open up opportunity for development because of the infrastructure that would be needed to be created for the prison."
Rogers said city leaders also will oppose a bill being sponsored by Senate Budget Chairman Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan, that seeks to remove a provision included in the prison relocation bill that allows the city housing the prison to increase sales taxes by a half cent.
Hillyard said he's "heard a lot of support" from legislators to take back the tax option. After it became a political issue between Biskupski and Becker, he said, "both disclaimed any interest in it."
Last March, Biskupski accused Becker of striking a secret deal with lawmakers to push his agenda for a sales tax increase through the prison relocation. Throughout the rest of the campaign, Becker denied those accusations.
Biskupski now believes the sales tax option needs to "remain on the table," said her spokesman, Matthew Rojas, because it may be needed in the future.
"(The tax) was basically designed to deal with unintended consequences," Rojas said. "To retroactively take it away just seems unfair. And again, it's just an option. There is no plan at this point to utilize it."
Compared with last year, negotiations between the Legislature and Salt Lake City over the prison likely will go much "smoother," Dunnigan said.
"There's a lot of interest to work together," he said. "We don't want it sited on a place that's not going to work. The state is interested in working with the city on this, so there's good opportunity there."