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Operation Rio Grande to cost $67 million over 2 years

SALT LAKE CITY — The numbers are in.

As Operation Rio Grande heads into its third week, state leaders on Monday released the total projected cost of the massive, multijurisdictional effort to clean up Salt Lake City's most infamous neighborhood and get Utah's most needy the help they need.

It's not cheap. The operation is expected to cost $67 million over the next two years, until the Road Home's downtown shelter is slated to close in June 2019.

The good news, according to House Speaker Greg Hughes and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, is that much of the cost has been "absorbed" by costs that have already been committed through appropriations or "offset" with existing budgets or planned money.

The catch: There's still a nearly $21 million funding gap over two years that must be filled with state, city and county funds.

And about $6 million of the operation's budget depends on Medicaid waivers that are still awaiting approval from the federal administration. But Cox said state leaders are optimistic that those funds will be approved by November.

"We really do believe we're going to get the waivers, and sooner than we originally thought," Cox said. "There are discussions going on right now, in fact, they're exchanging draft language today — that's a very good sign, meaning we're close to final approval."

As for the $21 million, two-year gap, Hughes and Cox say the state plans to pay about half — about $5.25 million a year — while Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County will split the remainder, about $2.6 million each per year.

It's not an "insurmountable" hurdle, Hughes said.

"Only amateurs make guarantees in politics, but I will tell you I've had incredible support from colleagues. I think the state has really embraced this as a state issue, (and) I think we have the political will," Hughes said. "I think it's a very robust budget, and when you look at what that gap is, it's absolutely a doable number for us to arrive at."

But Matthew Rojas, Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski's spokesman, said Monday that according to the city's fiscal team, $2.6 million is likely "not an accurate representation of what the city is being asked to shoulder."

Rojas said that number does not include the more than $10 million Salt Lake City is already spending on the Rio Grande area, and "we believe that some of those costs are not reflected in the budget."

Nonetheless, Rojas said "no one is leaving the table," but Biskupski and the City Council need to discuss the operation's budget during the council's meeting on Tuesday.

"Everybody is really supportive of Operation Rio Grande, but we need to be transparent about what this is going to cost," Rojas said.

Friday, during the Poplar Neighborhood Alliance meeting where Operation Rio Grande leaders fielded concerns and questions from west-side residents, Biskupski indicated she and other Salt Lake City leaders are prepared to do what it takes, along with state help.

"There is a great deal of cooperation, and nobody is leaving the room or the table no matter how expensive this gets," she said. "We have been in funding meetings almost daily talking about how do we fund this. And this is not cheap."

Just in the last four years, Salt Lake City alone has spent nearly $50 million in the Rio Grande neighborhood, Biskupski said.

"That is a lot of Salt Lake City taxpayer money, and we knew looking at those dollars we could not do this alone," Biskupski said. "I am so grateful to the speaker for showing up and saying: 'We get it. We're here to help. Let's figure it out.'"

Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams said Operation Rio Grande and "restoring public safety is a high priority for the county."

"I am appreciative of the state’s support to help address this crisis and am committed to working with the County Council to identify ways to meet our share of the remaining funding needs," McAdams said.

Cox noted that "if we do this right and get people help," Operation Rio Grande will eventually save taxpayer dollars.

"There is a savings on the back end of this, and that's when people are not addicted to drugs, when they have jobs and when they have housing," Cox said.

Cox added that he's "optimistic" that Operation Rio Grande will be a sustainable effort over the next two years until the 1,100-bed downtown shelter is slated to close and the new homeless resource centers are opened.

"There's a force of will here that we're not giving up. We knew this is a marathon, not a sprint," Cox said. "We're excited by what we've seen over the first two weeks, but we'll be even more excited two years from now. And we're in for the long haul."