SALT LAKE CITY — Legislative leaders on Tuesday made an official request to fund the remaining $10 million of the estimated $67 million cost of Operation Rio Grande.
The request for state money, which was included in Gov. Gary Herbert's budget, will likely win the support it needs, said Social Services Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Paul Ray.
"We've seen the need for a long time, and given the reports we've gotten and how well things are going in Rio Grande, the key is not to turn our back on funding at this point and continue to give the tools necessary for everyone involved to continue forward," Ray, R-Clearfield, said.
House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, and Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, presented the appropriations request to the Social Services Appropriations Subcommittee, urging lawmakers to support the funding so the once chaotic and drug-riddled neighborhood surrounding the downtown homeless shelter can remain under control.
"If we slowed down, we would see a backfill happen very quickly," Hughes said, referring to the return of drugs and crime to the Rio Grande area if law enforcement and other efforts ceased.
State leaders estimated last year the two-year, multijurisdictional effort to clean up the Rio Grande neighborhood would cost about $67 million until the closure of the Road Home's troubled downtown shelter in June 2019, when three new homeless resource centers at scattered sites are slated to open.
Hughes has said most of the cost has been "absorbed" by funds that have already been committed through existing appropriations or "offset" with existing budgets, but there remained a roughly $20 million gap over the next two years that must be filled by state, city and county funds.
Salt Lake County and Salt Lake City officials are moving ahead with their shared commitment of providing the other $10 million of the $20 million gap — while also spending more on other homeless-related initiatives, including jail costs, prosecutors, drug treatment, behavioral health and housing.
In a special session last fall, the Legislature approved a $4.9 million in previously appropriated but unused funds toward Operation Rio Grande.
Of the $20 million gap, about $6.9 million would be for law enforcement, $5.2 million would be for treatment, $3.4 million would be for housing, $2.6 million would be for case management, $1.7 million would be for the new "safe space" on Rio Grande street, and $184,000 would be for court costs.
Niederhauser and Hughes said the total budget estimates remain around $67 million, but other requests may come forward, such as costs for the removal of 300 tons of garbage from the Jordan River, and lawmakers will need to sort through the requests and decide what to appropriate.
Salt Lake County and Salt Lake City, meanwhile, have budgeted more than the $2.5 million each for two years toward Operation Rio Grande.
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams said the county expects to pay about $13.5 million over two years toward the effort, including costs for attorneys, legal defenders, jail operations, Unified police officers, a new specialty drug court and about 200 more drug treatment beds.
The county has also budgeted to open 368 jail beds at the partially shuttered Oxbow Jail this summer, using county and state funds already budgeted for contracting with surrounding counties to expand jail capacity.
Salt Lake City last year committed it's first $2.5 million installment toward Operation Rio Grande. It also funded about 50 more police officers, 27 of which were needed to fill the beats of officers that had been pulled out of other areas of the city for the operation, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski's deputy chief of staff David Litvack said.
Additionally, the city has funded about $1.7 million to help Salt Lake County with behavioral health treatment, as well as "absorbed" about $2.5 million for law enforcement, 911, justice court and other costs related to the operation, Litvack said.
"All of us, (the city and county), have in our ways done more than what we've been asked," Litvack said. "Salt Lake City is fully invested in Operation Rio Grande and living up to the commitments we've made."
Ray said he expects the Social Services Subcommittee to prioritize the $10 million request in state funds "high on our list" during its prioritization process slated for Friday. Ray noted the subcommittee currently has $80 million in requests for ongoing money and $8 million in one-time funds.
The appropriations recommendations will then go to the Executive Appropriations Committee for consideration.
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