SALT LAKE CITY — Entering the final year of her first term, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski chose to share her 2019 State of the City Address at East High School for a reason.
She began her speech by describing how 25 years ago, "I turned on the news and couldn't believe what I was seeing."
"A group of students from East High School — just blocks from where I lived — were being threatened and bullied by their peers, teachers, school officials and even parents — all because they wanted to come together as the state’s first gay-straight alliance club.
"As the story unfolded, I found myself feeling uncomfortable. Uncomfortable because as an openly gay woman, I knew I wasn’t doing enough to help make life better for them," Biskupski continued. "Uncomfortable because although I had always considered a life of public service — having been raised in a household steeped in the Kennedy aura of duty to country — I had done little to live up to my namesake of Jackie Kennedy."
The mayor said those students' "courage" had "altered the course of my life — and the course of this state" by setting her on a path "to embrace change and to accept the uncomfortableness which often comes with it."
"While those students set out to create a safe space for themselves and their friends, what they accomplished was nothing less than a cultural shift in the state of Utah," Biskupski said. "A cultural shift that led us to where we are today."
Biskupski said throughout her public service, she has "never forgotten the impact and bravery of those students, nor my commitment to use my voice to build a stronger and more equitable community for all people."
So looking back on her three years in office, Biskupski celebrated her administration's efforts to "create the kind of cultural shifts that would allow us to build a city for everyone" — a promise of hers when she campaigned for office in 2015.
Biskupski's 2019 address — in contrast to last year's speech, when she called for tough changes, including a tax hike and a new bond to pay for streets — was a victory lap for the mayor as she headed into her fourth year in office, a year that will end in what has already become a crowded race to try and unseat her.
Biskupski lauded her administration's progress on tough issues, focusing specifically on affordable housing, transit, infrastructure, clean air and public safety.
Instead of rolling out new proposals like she did in last year's address, Biskupski highlighted city programs going on now, and pledged to keep the city on the same path.
"We live among one another because we inherently value what each of us brings to this community. And the affordable housing shortage we are facing in this region threatens the very fabric of this notion," Biskupski said. "For three years, my administration has taken on this crisis."
She highlighted the city's passage of its first affordable housing plan in more than 20 years, crediting support from community stakeholders and the City Council. Since her first year in office, the city has added nearly 2,500 affordable units into the city's housing "pipeline," Biskupski said, including 400 units of transitional housing to help move people out of homelessness.
She also lauded the passage of the tax hike she proposed last year, which created the city's "first ever ongoing revenue source for affordable housing."
What's next? Biskupski said in the coming year her administration will "examine our zoning requirements, to find ways in which we can incentivize affordability and accessibility while maintaining the current feel of our neighborhoods.
But also, Biskupski had a call to action to the state and to other cities. "We can't do it alone," she said. "The cultural shift in affordable housing we have created here must expand statewide."
On transit and infrastructure, Biskupski said Salt Lake City has also created a "cultural shift" to help people make "clean air decisions."
"When I took office three years ago, I stood on the steps of City Hall and I could not see the Wasatch Mountains — the very mountains which drew me to this city 30 years ago," the mayor said, adding that it's a problem that has no single solution and requires effort from "the state, every city, every business, and yes, every resident who calls Utah home."
She again lauded the City Council and voters for passing last year's tax hike and bond to fund transit projects, including changes to bus service that she said will come this August.
"Commuters on three key lines along Second South, 21st South, and right here at Ninth South will see extended hours, more frequent service, and at long last, Sunday service," she said.
On public safety, Biskupski lauded a "dramatic" decrease in crime.
"There is nothing more a mayor wants to be able to say than this: You are safer in this city today than you were three years ago," she said, crediting Chief Mike Brown for getting officers back into neighborhoods.
Compared to 2015, there were 6,000 fewer crimes reported, a 25 percent decrease, the mayor said.
Her administration's work has been possible, she said, because of collaboration with the City Council.
"Yes, at times we have disagreed, and that is healthy, but on most issues, we have spoken with one voice," she said.
What wasn't mentioned in the mayor's speech was perhaps the darkest blotch on Salt Lake City's year in 2018: the state's final-hour takeover of about 16,000 acres of the city's northwest quadrant for a Utah inland port.
The issue divided the mayor and City Council members, who negotiated with state leaders to make changes to the legislation, while the mayor refused to continue negotiating when she said it became clear state leaders weren't interested in returning ultimate city land use decisions to the city.
In an interview with reporters after her speech, Biskupski said she doesn't know what to expect this year as far as the inland port because "things are moving so slowly.
"And that shouldn't surprise anyone," she said, calling the legislation "not very well thought-out."
Councilwoman Amy Fowler applauded Biskupski for her speech, noting that 2019 will be all about continuing momentum of issues already in motion.
"We did so much last year, and it was awesome and we had a really good year," Fowler said, but adding, "There were certainly some struggles in there."
Fowler laughed about the absence of any mention of the inland port controversy, jokingly saying, "I'd rather not mention it. It's PTSD for me."9 comments on this story
Biskupski said 2019 will be all about continuing efforts and "implementation." The closure of the downtown homeless shelter — now slated to miss its state-mandated deadline — will also be a challenge, the mayor acknowledged.
With already a handful of hopefuls lining up to challenge her, 2019 will bring new struggles for the first-term mayor. Asked about her upcoming election year, Biskupski hinted that her team will "launch some new things" when she makes her official campaign announcement, but Thursday's speech was "about the state of the city.
"And I am telling you, we are the envy," she said. "People are just going 'How are you doing all this?'"