As 2017 draws to a close, it’s worth looking back at the noteworthy events that have helped shape our county, and some of the initiatives my office is working on.
Last year I wrote about issues I wanted to work on for 2017, which included intergenerational poverty, criminal justice, suicide prevention, and budget transparency. I’m pleased that we’ve made progress on each of these fronts, and I want to update you on each of them.
After learning as much as I could about intergenerational poverty and its impact on families in Salt Lake County this year, I asked my colleagues on the County Council for their support to launch a county task force to address the issue. With their support, the council-driven Intergenerational Poverty Task Force was started and is looking at the county’s role in empowering families to break out of the cycle of poverty.
This group brings together directors from county entities like Human Services, Behavioral Health, Regional Development, and the mayor’s office, as well as representatives from the state’s Workforce Services and Human Services departments, local school districts, and more. This coalition will look at the current anti-poverty efforts within Salt Lake County and assess how we’re doing in addressing intergenerational poverty specifically. It’s vital for county and local leaders to lead this charge in our communities if we really want to make a difference empowering people to break out of the cycle of poverty. You can learn more about the state research behind intergenerational poverty here.
This past year the homelessness crisis has been a tremendous focus for Salt Lake County, as well as state and local law enforcement. We’ve had ongoing conversations about the best ways to help people trapped in a condition of homelessness, many of whom also struggle with drug addictions. The launch of Operation Rio Grande underscored the urgency of this issue, and I’m glad to see progress being made.
One of the first and most important priorities is to ensure our law enforcement officers have the right tools to do the job. Part of that includes the threat of jail time for people committing criminal offenses on the street. In our recently approved 2018 budget, the Council included funding to fully open the Oxbow Jail in Salt Lake City. This, combined with optimizing the jail bed space at the Adult Detention Center will have a significant impact on criminal justice challenges in the county. Having sufficient jail bed space so our law enforcement officers can arrest offenders and have a place to take them is vital. Resources for more beds gives officers this tool as they do their jobs to keep our streets free from dangerous or disruptive individuals. Coupled with the council’s support of and funding for treatment beds, this improvement will yield tangible benefits for reducing crime and drug use in our communities.
I had the opportunity to serve on the state’s Mental Health Crisis Line Commission this year. We looked at the resources available across the state for people in a moment of mental health crisis. Where would they turn? We found that resources in many regions of Utah were insufficient. Our goal is to ensure that any individual in our state who is in a crisis situation has a place to turn, 24-7, to help them.
There may be legislation this coming session to help address this. Meanwhile, we’ve been working with Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Chris Stewart to establish something on a national level.
Currently, there is a great tool known as the SAFEUT app that you can download on your smartphone. In times of crisis you can always call 801.587.3000 to talk to a trained counselor in a free and confidential call. Until a different resource is available (such as a three digit crisis line as has been proposed) these are wonderful tools to keep in mind for anyone who may be struggling.
The most important function of the County Council is to pass a budget each year. This budget represents the policy direction for the county, as directed by the council. It’s important for us to pass a budget that pays for all the statutorily required functions of county government, as well as provide resources to meet county objectives that are appropriate roles of county government. I’m pleased that the budget passed this year accomplishes these goals, with NO tax increase. I will always be committed to doing whatever we can to find areas to trim unnecessary county spending, finding more efficient ways to use the funding we already do have, before asking taxpayers for an increase.
To that end, this year I made it clear during the budget deliberations that I would not support a final budget that exceeded the dollar amount proposed in the Mayor’s initial budget of roughly $1.3 billion. Growth in spending, even if marginal on a year over year basis, contributes to the growth of government and eats into our fund balance (savings account). That’s why I supported $1.2 million in cuts, which would have avoided the need to dip into that fund balance, and further stave off any talk of tax increases in future budgets.
Since the final budget exceeded the Mayor’s recommendation by more than $360,000, and there were still plenty of prudent cuts we could have made to avoid using fund balance, ultimately I decided to vote against the budget. The budget passed on a 5-4 vote, with a majority of council members voting in favor.
I’m still grateful to my colleagues and the mayor’s office for the collaboration and dialogue that occurred throughout this process. Each year I’ll strive for a better process than the last, incorporating more transparency and open discussion on budgetary matters.
You’ll find that many of these issues take time. There is no immediate, easy fix to pressing challenges in our county. But each year as we make steps in the right direction—whether on poverty, crime, mental health, transparency, or a multitude of other issues—we ought to celebrate the progress we see that improves lives for county residents, increases opportunity, and ultimately continues to make Salt Lake County and Utah a wonderful place to live, work, and raise a family.