SALT LAKE CITY — Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams says a high-pressure meeting with Utah's lieutenant governor and speaker of the House on the day before the Aug. 15, 2017, rollout of Operation Rio Grande is "a day I'll never forget in my public service."
It was a Sunday afternoon, and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox and Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes were meeting with McAdams in his sweltering office, where the air conditioning was not working.
To that point, McAdams says, the various sides had been by beset by "a lot of competing priorities," a "lack of trust" and "frustration back and forth."
"It almost fell apart on that Sunday," he said. "We sat there for several hours and hammered out all of our differences, and (it was) a bit of a leap of faith. The speaker and the lieutenant governor said there will be treatment funding there — one way or another.
"And there were some risks, because we didn't have (federal approval) for that. But they said, 'It will be there. We don't know how, but one way or another, treatment (funding) will be there.' And we looked each other in the eye, and we argued it out, and we came to an agreement and we moved forward."
The three leaders and state Department of Public Safety Commissioner Keith Squires touted Operation Rio Grande as a success story in a panel discussion in a conference room at Abravanel Hall on Monday, speaking in front of criminal justice experts from around the country.
"It hasn't been perfect, but a lot of people's lives have been changed," McAdams told the National Network of Criminal Justice Coordinating Councils, a criminal justice reform think tank.
Launched nearly a year ago, Operation Rio Grande is an ongoing undertaking designed to reduce drug dealing and other crime in the neighborhood surrounding the Road Home homeless shelter in downtown Salt Lake, in large part by aggressively cracking down on drug distributors and providing needed social services to addicted users and the mentally ill.
McAdams and his fellow panelists reported Monday that 80 people have been employed, 191 people have received criminal record expungement to some extent, 124 pounds of drugs have been seized, and 2,442 of Utah's very poorest have recently become eligible for Medicaid, all in connection with Operation Rio Grande.
They also reported 300 people have been housed, though that number includes clients in assistive housing.
"We have 280 drug dealers that we've arrested — those are the numbers that I got this morning," Cox said.
Thomas Eberly — an official with the National Network of Criminal Justice Coordinating Councils' founding organization, the Justice Management Institute — said Operation Rio Grande is worth studying because of a design and execution that are unique and "quite impressive."
"What's unique about it is, you have that group of individuals come together," Eberly told the Deseret News, referring to the panelists.
Eberly said he and others in attendance also wanted to learn from the significant commitment to funding that accompanied Operation Rio Grande.
"The number one reason (most places) fail is they don't have the funding or resources," he said.
Matt Minkevitch, executive director of the Road Home, has also heaped praise on Operation Rio Grande, telling lawmakers last week, "We have safer streets, people feel safer coming to us."
Cox participated in a ride along tour of the neighborhood near the Road Home on Monday — "a place I never would have walked a year ago" — and said the conversations he had with people in Pioneer Park showed that the people living in that area are similarly grateful for Operation Rio Grande.
"As I'm walking through the park ... I had three people who came up to me … who said 'thank you so much for you guys for what you have done,'" Cox said.
Hughes, R-Draper, said that in negotiating with the county over how Operation Rio Grande would be carried out, "we knew behavioral health was an issue" that needed addressing.
An important part of that effort, Hughes said, was getting a federal exception to an old federal regulation against using Medicaid dollars for addiction treatment facilities with more than 16 beds.
He said "we did an 'occupy HHS' in (Washington), D.C. and said, 'you've got to let us have bigger (treatment) centers,'" referring to U.S. Health and Human Services.
The federal government approved that waiver request late last year, along with an expansion of Medicaid eligibility for a few thousand of Utah's homeless and otherwise extremely poor residents.
Of the $100 million in federal funds approved for Medicaid expansion last year, $10 million was set aside to fund hundreds of new treatment beds in Salt Lake County.
McAdams said this month that the county had been willing to put its name to Operation Rio Grande last August only if the commitment to fund treatment services for those affected was "more than just platitudes."12 comments on this story
Before the funding commitments that accompanied Operation Rio Grande, "what was happening in that area was so much bigger than what resources were being used," Hughes said.
Hughes echoed McAdams' sentiment that all sides of the issue had to put faith in each other when they planned what Operation Rio Grande would look like.
"We had to agree at the outset that there would be no credit and no blame," he said.
Squires said the high level of coordination required for Operation Rio Grande was comparable to the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake, "except the difference was we had a couple years" for the Games.