Salt Lake City community and religious leaders have a New Year's resolution for Mayor-elect Ralph Becker: Make addressing poverty a top priority.
Spurred by the absence of poverty issues in Becker's agenda for his first 180 days in office, leaders from 11 faith and community groups sent a letter to the mayor-elect Wednesday, challenging his administration to address the city's poverty problems and requesting a January meeting with him to discuss them.
"Previous mayors have neglected low-income people, and Ralph Becker has left poverty out of his 180-day plan," Glenn Bailey, executive director of Crossroads Urban Center, said in a statement. "Our goal is to let him know that people in Salt Lake City have expectations for him to show leadership in this area."
Bill Tibbitts, director of the Anti-Hunger Action Committee, said outgoing Mayor Rocky Anderson "would sometimes talk about poverty, but he didn't do nearly as much as he could have."
Anderson was taken aback Wednesday by claims that his administration hasn't done enough to address poverty problems.
"There certainly is always more that can be done, but I think my administration has made poverty a top issue," he said.
Anderson cited several accomplishments by his administration over the past eight years to benefit those in need, including what he said has been "unprecedented support for affordable housing in Salt Lake City."
Salt Lake City and its affordable housing partners have spent more than $46 million on affordable housing during Anderson's two terms in office, granting 170 first-time home-buyer loans and creating nearly 3,500 affordable-housing units and 357 market-rate units.
The city also partnered in several projects Anderson calls "innovative," including a transitional housing project for homeless veterans at Veterans Hospital, the 100-unit Sunrise Apartments for the chronically homeless and the low-income Jefferson Apartments. Salt Lake City also became the first Olympic city to facilitate a homeless overflow shelter.
"There's no question that I and others in my administration have made a tremendous difference for those who are most in need," Anderson said.
Still, advocates for low-income, homeless, hungry and disabled people see a change in leadership at City Hall as an opportunity for increased collaboration between the community and city government on poverty issues, Tibbitts said.
Four issues in need of immediate attention, according to the letter, are the decreasing stock of low-income housing, the rising cost of transportation, the need to connect people with nutrition and health-care programs, and the regulation of payday lenders.
Becker was out of town and unavailable for comment Wednesday, but spokeswoman Karen Hale said the mayor-elect is aware of the letter.
"He's looking forward to meeting together (with the letter's authors) to discuss what role the city can plan in helping to address (poverty issues)," Hale said.
Becker addressed the four specific issues and many others during his campaign, making several promises along the way for addressing poverty. Among those campaign vows was creation of a task force to explore solutions to the city's poverty problems.
Though not completely sold on the idea of a task force, Tibbitts wonders why Becker didn't include it in his 180-day plan.
"The mayor-elect has done a great job setting priorities in other areas," Tibbitts said. "Our hope is that if we let him know the community also has expectations in the area of poverty, he'll live up to those."
One in five Salt Lake City residents lives under the federal poverty line, which is nearly twice the rate of Utah as a whole, he said.
With that level of poverty in Salt Lake City, an ongoing commitment to addressing the problem is needed, Tibbitts said. A task force "isn't a bad idea," he said, "but it isn't enough."
"It's probably time to think about setting up a board or commission to look at poverty issues and actually staff it with someone who's responsible for implementing the ideas that work their way through that board," Tibbitts said.Joining Bailey and Tibbitts to write the letter were Jerry Costley, executive director, Disabled Rights Action Committee; Mack D. Gift, executive director, The Mental Health Association of Utah; the Rev. Michael Imperiale, pastor, First Presbyterian Church; the Rev. Steve Klemz, pastor, Zion Lutheran Church; Gina Cornia, executive director, Utahns Against Hunger; Joyce Delcourt, vice chairwoman, Legislative Coalition for People With Disabilities; Linda Hilton, director, Coalition of Religious Communities; Cathy Hoskins, executive director, Salt Lake Community Action Program; and Dee Rowland, director, Peace & Justice Commission, Utah Catholic Diocese.