SALT LAKE CITY — The race is on.
It took Salt Lake City leaders months to settle on four — and then two — sites for new homeless resource centers, and they made those selections behind closed doors.
Now, Salt Lake County and state officials have less than a month to select a third site — with public input.
The bill that would lay out that process — while also empowering the county and the state to choose a site, even if the city is reluctant — was first introduced and unanimously approved by a House committee and the full House Monday with less than four days left in the 2017 Legislature.
The bill would also expedite the state's role to provide $20 million in one-time funds for shelter construction, completing the grants in next year's budget rather than in 2019, while also giving Salt Lake County a tight deadline to make a site recommendation to the state's Homeless Coordinating Committee by March 30.
Because homelessness is a top priority this session for House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, bill sponsor House Majority Whip Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, said three days is "more than enough time" to pass HB441 through the Senate for Gov. Gary Herbert's consideration.
It's an issue that state, county and city leaders have said is too important to delay, after struggling to come up with a plan that would be both palatable to the public and overhaul the state's homeless services model.
"This bill allows us to do what we have been striving to do for decades: help those most in need find hope," Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski said. "This hasn't been easy; we all know this. But here we are today discussing what I believe may be the single most important action the Legislature takes this year."
Elected officials announced last month that the plan to build four shelters in Salt Lake City had been abandoned, with two of the previously selected sites being scrapped, including the controversial Sugar House location.
The new proposal to build two shelters in Salt Lake City and one elsewhere in Salt Lake County is on a fast-track forward, with little state opposition expected.
But community activist and former Salt Lake City mayoral candidate George Chapman spoke against the bill in Monday's House Public Utilities, Energy and Technology Committee meeting, expressing concern that the bill gives too much power to Salt Lake County officials to make the site selection, even if cities oppose the location.
"Essentially what this bill is doing is giving the mayor of Salt Lake County unilateral ability to designate a resource center," Chapman said.
But Gibson said the "intent of the bill is not to trump a municipality," pointing out that a committee of Salt Lake County leaders, homeless services providers and business community representatives will work with city officials before making a site recommendation.
Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams said the county intends to collaborate with the city on the site selection to ensure the shelter fits well within the community.
"I hope that cities will recognize we want to work constructively with them to find the best location that works, but simply 'no' is not a workable answer," McAdams said.
HB441, however, would leave Salt Lake County officials little time to hold a series of public hearings and workshops to narrow down which of the county's 16 cities will house the homeless resource center.
County officials have already internally identified five potential sites, which McAdams said likely will be announced next week. Following that announcement, there will be open houses on March 14 and March 18, then a site committee meeting for more public input March 22.
On March 28, the committee is expected to make a recommendation to the state's Homeless Coordinating Committee to consider during its March 30 meeting.
In an effort to provide public input on the sites — and avoid the controversy Salt Lake City leaders faced for making the selections in private — McAdams said the process will be "robust yet abbreviated."
"I felt it was important to still have a public engagement process," he said. "You don't know what you don't know until you've thrown it wide open for public comment."
McAdams has expressed he was "a little bit" worried about the condensed time frame, but he acknowledged that state leaders have set a March 30 deadline to move forward on a process that has been years in the making.
Rep. Patrice Arent, D-Millcreek, questioned the deadline, wondering why the county's process must be so condensed.
Gibson acknowledged that the date is "arbitrary" but added that the Legislature had hoped the sites would be selected last year and that leaders need to move forward to "move the dial."
"How much longer does it need to keep going? Let's figure out what the sites are, make the decision and move on," he said.
Yet even as Gibson's HB441 was moving forward, another bill that state and county leaders have deemed as crucial to help fund the three new resource shelters failed in a House committee Monday afternoon.
HB452, which would collect property tax revenue from all counties throughout the state for a pool of an estimated $3 million for grants to fund operation expenses — and also provide an annual incentive of $900 per bed for cities hosting a new shelter — failed on a 4-4 vote in the House Revenue and Taxation Committee.
Bill sponsor Rep. Eliason, R-Sandy, urged lawmakers to support it, saying it would provide crucial funding to help manage the shelter while also providing funds to offset some of the impacts a new homeless shelter would create a community.
Without the bill, Salt Lake County may have a difficult time finding a "host city" for the third site, Eliason said.
"If (a city) knows it's just going to be a drain on their general fund, in addition to law enforcement issues a city may face, I submit to you: Why would any city even investigate hosting an additional shelter?" he said. "Good luck trying to incentivize a city to take this other shelter being contemplated as part of the plan."
Eliason added that it will be difficult to fund the shelters' operation, estimated to cost roughly $2 million per year for a 200-bed shelter. The two Salt Lake City shelters are capped at 200 beds, and the Salt Lake County shelter could be 200 to 300 beds.
Yet lawmakers worried that the bill would cause counties to raise taxes to make up the difference they'd be required to pay to the state.
"I don't know if any county has extra in their budget," said Rep. Ken Ivory, R-West Jordan.
HB452's failure was a disappointment, McAdams said, but doesn't doom plans to revamp homeless services. It's an issue state leaders need to address, he said, if not this year, then next year.
"We do need to figure out the ongoing operations of the shelters and how they're going to be funded," the county mayor said.
When asked if the bill's failure will complicate Salt Lake County's search for a new city to host the third site, McAdams said, "I think we can still move forward."
"This is not a road block. It's just a piece of the puzzle that needs to be figured out at some point. Sooner is better than later, but we've got time to figure this out, even if it's another legislative session," he said.
Eliason said in a text message he doesn't intend to try to revive the bill during this session, which ends at midnight Thursday.