SALT LAKE CITY — As the countdown to the June 2019 closure of the troubled downtown homeless shelter continues, there's at least one loose end state lawmakers must iron out, and House Speaker Greg Hughes says it needs to happen this year.
Hughes, R-Draper, says the bill to provide an ongoing revenue stream for the three new homeless resource centers slated to replace the Road Home shelter must pass during the 2018 Legislature, which begins Monday.
The bill would enact fees on cities and counties statewide to help fund the operation of the homeless resource centers meant to redesign Salt Lake County's homeless delivery system, slated to break ground later this year.
"It's a critical bill," said Hughes, who has prioritized homeless issues in the past two legislative sessions. "When we get the resource centers up and running, we have to have a revenue source."
The speaker said he was "very disappointed" when HB452, a bill that would have taxed Utah counties to create a revenue stream to fund the three shelters' operations, failed in a House committee last year.
Since then, the bill's sponsor, Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, has been working on a new version that would collect some sort of fee from all cities and counties based on their lack of low-income or affordable housing, and if a city hosts a homeless shelter, it would get a credit toward the fees.
Those fees, Eliason said, will create an ongoing pool of money to fund the three future homeless resource centers and also incentivize cities and counties to host homeless shelters or push for more affordable housing.
"In a way, it can be a bit of a carrot," Hughes said. "Instead of just paying revenue to a different jurisdiction, (cities) might do more to address some of their own homeless."
The bill, while still being drafted, is the most significant piece of legislation to deal with homelessness issues this year, Hughes said. Eliason said he expects to have it filed by the second week of the session.
After Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams was tasked with selecting a site for the third homeless resource center (after plans changed from having four centers in Salt Lake City to two), McAdams chose a location in South Salt Lake — but with a caveat. McAdams said he would not support breaking ground on the facility until the Legislature created a way to help offset the costs of the shelters.
"Homelessness is a statewide problem, and we have to recognize that statewide problem has impacts on some communities more than others," he said. "The state needs to step up and make sure that those communities that are disproportionally impacted by homelessness receive support from the state for the services they provide."
McAdams said the bill is an "indispensable part of our path forward," and if it doesn't pass, he — as one voice on the Shelter the Homeless board overseeing the shelters — would not support the South Salt Lake center groundbreaking.
Because Eliason's bill has not yet been filed, the Utah Association of Counties and the Utah League of Cities and Towns have not yet taken official positions on it, but representatives from the organizations say they have been working closely with Eliason to come up with a draft they could support.
"We've been working on a way to spread the pain to have both counties and cities participate in funding those resource centers," said Lincoln Shurtz, spokesman for the Utah Association of Counties, noting that last year's bill would have only taxed counties.
Cameron Diehl, director of the Utah League of Cities and Towns, said "we applaud the legislative leadership on addressing homelessness and their willingness to partner with local governments," but "we still have serious concerns about land-use pre-emption to site the homeless resource centers and potential efforts to tax local governments" to pay for them.
"The league recognizes that the state has put forward investment in addressing homelessness in the state of Utah," Diehl added, but he noted that cities' investments must also be considered as part of the discussion on how to fund the shelters.
Meanwhile, a few other homelessness-related items must be sorted out.
During last year's special session, lawmakers passed a bill to shuffle $4.9 million in state funds to help pay for law enforcement for Operation Rio Grande, the multi-agency effort to clean up the neighborhood surrounding the Road Home's 1,100-bed shelter.
Operation Rio Grande has been estimated to cost $67 million over two years, from its Aug. 14 launch to the June 2019 closure of the downtown shelter. Of what can't be "absorbed" by costs that have already been committed through existing appropriations or "offset" with existing budgets, Hughes says a nearly $21 million gap over two years must be filled with state, city and county funds.
Over the next two years, state officials expect to pay half of that gap — about $10.5 million — while Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County officials have committed to split the remainder. Lawmakers must appropriate its half this year, Hughes said.
However, the speaker also expects some additional funding requests for efforts related to Operation Rio Grande but not necessarily budgeted for from the beginning.
For example, Hughes said the Utah Department of Transportation and Salt Lake County removed 300 tons of garbage from the Jordan River as part of the effort to follow homeless individuals who may have fled the Rio Grande neighborhood when the operation began to camp along the Jordan River.
Hughes also said South Salt Lake may submit requests to pay for additional police or fire resources to help offset the cost of their homeless center.