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Salt Lake City Council accuses Biskupski of 'lacking leadership' over housing, homeless funding

FILE — Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski speaks during a press conference at the City County Building in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 30, 2016.
FILE — Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski speaks during a press conference at the City County Building in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 30, 2016.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Mayor Jackie Biskupski is pumping the brakes on the Salt Lake City Council's plan to invest nearly $30 million in affordable housing and homeless solutions, resulting in council members accusing her of "lacking leadership" in a time of crisis.

Biskupski said she's worried that the council took "random," rushed and potentially damaging cuts from the city's Redevelopment Agency budget in a flurry of "unnecessary panic."

"I was very caught off guard," the mayor said. "As I watched, trying to decide on the fly how to cobble together a bunch of money, it was concerning to me as somebody who believes strongly that we have to be fiscal managers in a way that is extremely responsible with every tax dollar in our possession.

"We are in crisis, but we have to be very deliberative," she added. "You have to understand the ripple effect of decisions you make. There's only so much money."

That had Councilman James Rogers reeling Wednesday.

Rogers said Tuesday night's budget overhaul was the result of months of work, and the City Council has spent years talking about how to reduce the city's 7,500-unit affordable housing shortage.

"We made our move. We went for it, decided to make an impact rather than let taxpayer money sit and collect dust," he said. "We have a vision, yet we haven't seen a single strategy or vision come forward from (Biskupski) in regards to affordable housing at all."

But it's not just Biskupski's hesitation to support the council's supermajority vote to pass the allocations that has Rogers exasperated. He said it's not the first time the City Council has found itself frustrated with the administration that took office nearly a year ago.

Conflict over the planned homeless resource centers has also put the council at odds with the mayor's office, Rogers said, as have lags on site selection, housing initiatives and enacting a plan to address the city's impact fee dilemma.

Rogers has said it seems Biskupski has experienced a "learning curve." But even though the mayor has spent 10 months in office, the City Council chairman said he still hasn't seen an administration with the same boldness of Biskupski's campaign last year that championed the slogan: "It's time for change."

"We've waited 10 months for a lot of things to change," Rogers said. "But instead we've seen a lack of leadership and lack of vision."

Biskupski said that's a "bizarre" thing to hear, arguing that her team has has been working hard, collaborating at an intense pace to address issues ranging from homelessness to impact fees.

She also pointed out that her administration has already helped make huge changes — including the lauded Operation Diversion, an ongoing effort launched last month to root out the drug dealers and criminals preying on the city's homeless population while also diverting those suffering from addiction to treatment.

Council frustrations

Biskupski was initially reluctant to compromise on the City Council's request to have four new homeless resource centers instead of two larger facilities, locking City Hall in a impasse until closed-door meeting last month when the mayor eventually conceded.

Now, despite the council's request to have the four sites named by Oct. 10, that decision has been delayed until mid-November.

Biskupski also hadn't submitted a plan to solve the city's impact fees dilemma until last week, Rogers said, even though the moratorium the City Council imposed last year expires Nov. 1.

It will take time for the council to review the plan, and any new ordinance will require at least 90 days to take effect, leaving the city in an awkward position, Rogers said.

The moratorium was meant to give City Hall a year to re-evaluate its fees, facing businesses and developers complaining they were unfair. But if the moratorium lapses without a new policy, the old fees will return.

Rogers said the City Council will review Biskupski's impact fee proposal, but the mayor still hasn't provided a "single suggestion" for what to do when the moratorium lapses.

Council members Lisa Adams and Derek Kitchen both said this week that they too have been "frustrated" by the mayor's pace.

"We're leading out, even though it's not our role. We're not the administration," Rogers said. "But because she's not stepping up to the plate, we have to."

Adams said Tuesday's allocation was a "lightning strike" meant to tackle issues that have festered within Salt Lake City for too long.

"This is the most urgent issue the city has ever faced. Hesitation is only going to hurt the city in the long run," Kitchen said. "The City Council is shoulder-to-shoulder, taking this very seriously, but what we really need is a mayor that's willing to play ball."

Kitchen questioned Biskupski's reluctance to back the council's commitment: "I ask the mayor's office: Are you serious about affordable housing, or are you not?"

Rogers said Biskupski's complaints about the council's allocations this week "do nothing to solve the problem."

"If she doesn't like it, she should lead out and do something about it," he said. "Come up with a strategy. Come up with ideas. Don't shut them down. Lead out and tell us what to do."

Mayor's concerns

Biskupski said the City Council's sweep of the Redevelopment Agency budget, snipping nearly 30 separate budget items, could potentially jeopardize long-term projects, as well as risk relationships with developers.

Councilwoman Erin Mendhenhall, who lead out on the allocations, said the money was drawn from projects that had been sitting dormant for years.

But Biskupski said the council appeared to be plucking cash "on the fly," with no discussion of potential impacts. That's why she's called for a thorough review of the budget changes.

The money was taken from a range redevelopment projects, but Biskupski pointed to the Depot District as an area that appears to be "essentially deflated."

"Why they picked the area that really needs redevelopment so desperately is very surprising to me," Biskupski said.

The mayor said she aims to have recommended changes to the council's plan by next week.

As for the council's other complaints, Biskupski said her office isn't "slowing things down."

"In fact, most things are moving through this office at a pace that has never even existed before," she said. "The only reason I know that is because the staff is constantly complimenting us on the quick turnaround of things that come into the office."

Biskupski said plans on housing, impact fees and homelessness have been in motion.

"In reality, we've gone to the community for input on site selection, on impact fees," she said. "We've done vetting, so I feel like we don't need to panic."

Mike Akerlow, director of housing and neighborhood development, said he and Biskupski's team have been working on a comprehensive city housing plan, and he expects that a final draft will be ready by the end of November.

Akerlow said his department would love to see millions of dollars more in its budget for affordable housing — calling the City Council's proposal an "unprecedented" commitment — but he also noted that the city must balance its priorities.

"Certainly everyone has a common goal of addressing affordable housing," he said. "But the administration wants to be deliberate and make sure we're not impacting the mission of the Redevelopment Agency."

Email: kmckellar@deseretnews.com

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