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Mayor calls plan for homeless shelter a 'lethal blow' for South Salt Lake

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SOUTH SALT LAKE — Mayor Cherie Wood was visibly angry as she addressed reporters less than an hour after learning that a homeless shelter would be moving into her city.

"Today," Wood said, "the city of South Salt Lake was dealt a lethal blow."

The mayor first heard the news Friday morning while talking about the pending shelter decision on KSL Newsradio's "The Doug Wright Show." At the same time, Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams was attempting to reach her before the selection went public.

It was too late. Wood was live on the radio when she found out that South Salt Lake would host a homeless resource center at 3380 S. 1000 West.

"Wow," she said, pausing before explaining her feelings of "disappointment and anger," her voice straining with emotion.

"As a community, we fought hard to tell our story about being victimized by the county and their uses in our community," Wood said. "We will continue to fight this every step of the way."

But the decision is likely final.

McAdams recommended the site in a letter delivered to Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, chairman of the state's Homeless Coordinating Committee, late Thursday night.

Jonathan Hardy, director of Housing and Community Development in the state's Department of Workforce Services, said the committee — which is expected to finalize a decision April 10 — will likely follow McAdams' recommendation.

The decision comes after South Salt Lake leaders spent the past three weeks urging McAdams not to choose their city — the smallest of the municipalities that had been in the running for the shelter. More than 30 percent of the tax base in the city of 24,000 residents already is nontaxable because of the county service facilities it hosts.

Wood also worries that the city's 24-officer police force won't be able to handle the additional burden.

The up-to-300-bed shelter will be built near the Salt Lake Valley Detention Center and Salt Lake County Emergency Coordination Center.

The 2.5-acre vacant lot is also located near the Jordan River and six single-family homes.

Why South Salt Lake?

McAdams said the site rose above the eight other possible locations — three others in South Salt Lake, three in West Valley City and two in Draper — due to its proximity to Salt Lake City services, access to transit and low cost.

Its price has not been solidified, but county officials say it would not cost more than $850,000 based on negotiations with the current owner, Utah Nonprofit Housing Corp.

Since it's owned by the nonprofit, the land is not taxable and "therefore will not further contribute to removing land from the tax rolls," McAdams said in his letter.


But the county mayor included an ultimatum in his recommendation, acknowledging South Salt Lake's "compelling concerns" about its tax base and the burden it already carries by hosting many tax-exempt county facilities.

McAdams said the county will refuse to begin construction on the center "unless and until" legislation is adopted to pool tax revenues from across the state to compensate cities that host homeless resource centers.

"This legislation is critical before we can break ground on this facility," he said.

A bill that would have done just that failed to pass out of its first committee meeting during the 2017 Legislature, but its sponsor, Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, and House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, have said they're confident a new version will pass during the 2018 session.

"I think the point is very well made that this is a community that has done its part," McAdams said.

The county mayor called for more county and state resources to "invest" in South Salt Lake and the Jordan River — including open space, roads, transit options and a new county library.

West Valley City Mayor Ron Bigelow expressed "mixed emotions" in reaction to his city not being selected for the shelter, including empathy for West Valley's "sister city," South Salt Lake.

"We will help support South Salt Lake in any way we can," Bigelow said.

The site is near West Valley's border, he noted, so the city remains "concerned" about the potential impacts the homeless shelter will have on the area and the Jordan River.

'We will fight'

That gave little comfort to Wood, who said South Salt Lake will continue to fight the center until the city is "guaranteed" adequate support.

"Our residents and businesses have stood shoulder to shoulder to fight this battle. We will continue to fight," she said. "We are not willing to hinder the progress our community is seeing."

It's not clear exactly how South Salt Lake can fight McAdams' recommendation. Legislation passed this year gave the county mayor and the state the power to choose a site, with no measure for city say. That same bill, HB441, provides $10 million in state funding to help build three new homeless resource centers in Salt Lake County.

"There are still many options available to us, and we are considering any one of them," Wood said, though she did not provide more details about those options.

When asked whether the city is pursuing litigation to fight the site, Wood said city officials have looked into options for a lawsuit, but that doesn't appear to be an option because of the way HB441 was written.

As for the six single-family homes near the site, McAdams also recommended that the state buy the surrounding properties to help mitigate any impacts of the facility.

"We would have conversations with adjacent property owners and their interests to sell," he said, though it's not clear how many properties would be purchased.

South Salt Lake City Councilman Shane Siwik said some residents have lived on that street "for decades."

"I'm sure there might be a couple (owners) who might look at that, but these are their homes," he said. "They've lived there for a long time. I would imagine some aren't going to want to take the county up on that."

Siwik also pointed out that it's not the first time the neighborhood has battled social service facilities, including the siting of the Oxbow Jail on 1100 West.

"Oxbow was 20 years ago, and the community fought and lost," he said. "There's the (emergency operations center), and the community fought and lost. And now it's the (homeless) resource center, and the community has fought and lost."

'A critical first step'

South Salt Lake, West Valley City and Draper residents adamantly opposed building a shelter at the proposed sites, worrying that a homeless facility would attract drugs and crime to their communities.

But McAdams has said the new facility will be starkly different from the troubles known to plague the 1,100-bed Road Home shelter in downtown Salt Lake City. The new homeless resource center is part of a plan to break up and scatter the shelter to a more manageable and services-focused model.

The proposed South Salt Lake shelter is one of three homeless resource centers slated to be built over the next several years to eventually close the Road Home by June 1, 2019.

Two 200-bed facilities will be built in Salt Lake City at 275 High Ave. and 131 E. 700 South. Officials have not yet determined which populations will be served at each of the facilities.

"We know the step we are taking today is a critical first step but not the last step," McAdams said.

"There's a lot of work that needs to be done to earn the public trust and to let them know this facility will be safe. It will be a place of hope and healing for those who need temporary support on their road to self-sufficiency and the dignity of independence," he said.

Shortly before the 2017 Legislature ended, state, city and county leaders announced a change of plans to build three shelters instead of four 150-bed facilities in Salt Lake City, spurred by strong opposition to the sites — particularly one in Sugar House.

The Legislature gave McAdams one month to choose a site after the plans changed, requiring a March 30 deadline in HB441.

Critics accused the county of holding a rushed process to choose a site, but McAdams said the county tried to hold a robust process, with five public hearings to gather input during the condensed timeframe.

When asked if he felt the situation has damaged his political career, McAdams answered with a smile: "Yes."

"I knew when I accepted this task that it would come with consequences for me personally," he said. "But this work isn't about me personally. It's about doing the right thing for people who are in crisis. … If I have to pay a personal price for moving this work forward, it's a price I'm willing to pay.

"I ran for office to make a difference," McAdams continued, "not to have a job."


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