SALT LAKE CITY — The bill to provide $20 million for two new homeless resource centers in Salt Lake City and another in a yet-to-be-decided city in Salt Lake County is poised to receive final approval from the Utah Legislature.
HB441 — the bill critical to efforts by Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County to overhaul the state's homeless services model — cleared the Senate on Wednesday on a 26-3 vote after previously passing the House.
It now only awaits the House to concur with Senate amendments, which adopted the bill's fiscal note, before it's sent to the governor.
"This is a monumental and historic step forward as we work to reshape homeless services," Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams said.
The bill would speed up $20 million in one-time funds for shelter construction, completing the grants in next year's budget rather than 2019, while also giving Salt Lake County a March 30 deadline to make a site recommendation to the state's Homeless Coordinating Committee.
The bill received unanimous support in the House but faced some opposition in the Senate, causing it to stall for several hours when lawmakers refused to allow the bill to be passed without a third reading.
That's because Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, worried the bill would give too much authority to the county mayor — and not enough to cities — to decide where the third shelter will be built.
"We're giving this power and this authority to a single individual," Thatcher said. "The real concern is that a city selected. They could be cut out of the process."
Thatcher said he began getting calls from "very concerned cities" after the bill was introduced earlier this week.
In response, the bill's Senate sponsor, Sen. Ann Millner, R-Ogden, called HB441 a "carefully crafted compromise" that was the result of "very difficult work."
"Sometimes compromises don't address absolutely everything, but this can take us so much further (on homelessness)," Millner said.
Later Wednesday when the bill returned for a final vote on the Senate floor, Thatcher backpedaled on his concerns after he apparently spoke with Gov. Gary Herbert.
He said the governor "assured him" that representatives from the cities named in proposed sites will have an appointment to the board that will make the site recommendation to the state.
City and county officials said they were pleased to see legislative support for homelessness solutions, which was prioritized by House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, at the beginning of the session. They said they were confident the bill now has a clear path forward for the governor's consideration.
"We're happy to see the Legislature has followed through," McAdams said. "They really started from the beginning acknowledging homelessness is not a Salt Lake City or Salt Lake County problem, that it really is a statewide problem. The Legislature has stepped forward and stayed true to that commitment."
Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski's spokesman, Matthew Rojas, called it a "huge step forward in the shared goal of reducing and preventing homelessness."
"This bill is the next step forward in our move to finding more concrete and compassionate solutions to moving individuals from homelessness into housing," Rojas said.
McAdams said the passage of the bill will pave the way for the county to move forward with choosing a third site — with five site recommendations expected to be made public "within the next few days," he said. After a series of public hearings and workshops, a site recommendation will be made to the state.
"We want to make sure all of the stakeholders are included in helping us make the best decision possible," McAdams said. "We look forward to engaging the cities and the general public, who can help us make an informed recommendation."
Thatcher wasn't the only one with misgivings about the bill, though.
Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, questioned whether homelessness issues are the responsibility of government.
"I struggle with taking money from the taxpayer to pay for those who aren't paying taxes to provide something that isn't the role of government," she said. "I think we've gone far beyond the responsibility of government."
Sen. Allen Christensen, R-North Ogden, also opposed the bill.
"This is handing out a fish instead of teaching people," he said.
But most other Senators supported the bill. Sen. Gene Davis, D-Salt Lake City, called homelessness "a tragedy within our community."
"We need the services. We need these things to help people get back on their feet and restore their dignity and self-worth," he said. "That's the reason why we need to do this."