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Bill charging Utah cities for homeless shelters clears House

SALT LAKE CITY — A bill backed by political heavyweights that would require Utah cities and counties not hosting homeless shelters and lacking affordable housing to contribute to other shelters has cleared its next hurdle.

After an hourlong debate and a failed attempt by a GOP legislator to cut out the requirement to bill cities and counties a collective total of $3.3 million a year, the full House voted 49-15 Wednesday to pass the bill. It now goes to the Senate.

"This is the last component of the significant homelessness reform effort that this body has undertaken," the bill's sponsor, Rep. Steve Eliason, R-Sandy, told legislators before the vote, reminding them of the tens of millions of dollars already spent to break up the troubled downtown homeless shelter and build smaller homeless resource centers at scattered sites.

Eliason told lawmakers to respond to cities who might protest the bill by asking: "What are you doing to address low-income and affordable housing? Are you willing to host a shelter?"

"See what the answers to those questions are. See if the alternative is maybe $1 per resident, and I can guarantee you what the answer would be," Eliason said. "I'd invite you to attend a meeting to site a resource center and fear for your safety when you see the emotions that can arise there."

HB462 would require cities and counties with less than the state's average of affordable and low-income housing to annually contribute sales tax dollars of up to $200,000, based on population size, to help fund operating costs of homeless shelters.

Cities that currently host or are slated to host shelters — Salt Lake City, South Salt Lake, Midvale, Ogden and St. George — would be exempt, according to the bill.

The bill's aim is to fund the estimated $13 million annual operating costs for the homeless centers meant to break up Salt Lake City's 1,100-bed downtown homeless shelter.

In addition to $3.3 million from local governments, the state would pay $3.3 million a year out of its general fund to bring the total of public dollars to $6.6 million, and the private sector would be responsible for fundraising the rest.

House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, has called the bill "critical" to efforts to homeless reform and has said it must pass this year. Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams has if a bill doesn't pass to help mitigate impact of shelters, he'll pull his support of a homeless center now slated to break ground in South Salt Lake this spring.

But Rep. Karianne Lisonbee, R-Clearfield, pitched a substitute to the bill to instead have the state pay the total $6.6 million a year rather than pulling funds from city and county budgets. She argued it unfairly "punishes" cities for a housing market issue and acts more as a "stick" than an incentive for affordable housing.

"This is inequitable and will harm cities in their ability to fund their employees and their programs," Lisonbee said.

Lisonbee's motion failed 47-18. Before the vote, House Majority Leader Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, urged lawmakers to vote against it, noting the state has so far spent $75 million on homelessness reform.

"We have a responsibility to continue and see this effort across the finish line," Wilson said. "And we're just giving cities a choice. We're saying either have a homeless resource center … or help pay for the one somewhere else."

The Utah League of Cities and Towns, which opposed the bill and helped push Lisonbee's motion, was disappointed the bill advanced without the changes, Cameron Diehl, the league's executive director, said, but the league will continue to raise concerns and push for changes as it moves to the Senate.

"Kudos to Rep. Lisonbee and some of her colleagues on the House floor who recognized that HB462 creates an unfunded mandate on cities and towns," Diehl said. "Cities and towns are willing to help address homelessness. We fundamentally disagree with the premise that the state should charge cities and towns to pay for the operation and maintenance of homeless resource centers."