SALT LAKE CITY — Mayor Erin Mendenhall in her second “State of the City” address Tuesday night looked back on the tumultuous year of 2020 laid out plans for 2021 in Salt Lake City — including some new technology initiatives and a few always difficult and often political issues such as the environment, inequality, police reform and homelessness.
She began with a moment of silence for those lost to COVID-19, of which there have now been 1,613 in the state of Utah. Salt Lake County accounts for 659 of those; the number of deaths in SLC itself was not available.
Mendenhall’s first announcement was introducing the city’s first “Innovation Department,” which she said will make the city’s government “more nimble, efficient and cohesive.” This will include implementing an integrated software system for internal government functions, as well as building “digital equity infrastructure” and policy throughout the city. The goal is to roll this department out by the end of February, Mendenhall said.
“Tech Lake City,” as she referred to it, will continue to both attract new companies to come to SLC as well as helping local entrepreneurs set up businesses. There will also be an effort to help youth looking to shape their career paths and help adults who are seeking a new professional direction.
Mendenhall also announced that the city will continue its rental assistance fund — for which she said they have already received $6 million for and they plan to continue pressing the federal government for such assistance to keep people in their homes during the COVID-19 pandemic.
She introduced a “Renter’s Choice” ordinance that she’ll present to the City Council. It aims to lower the barrier that security deposits create for some renters. It will also improve the ability of residents from all income brackets to access housing.
She also committed to fighting gentrification in the city, as well as continuing to grow and improve parks and recreation, including bike lanes.
Mendenhall said she will work to change the way city employees commute and work as the 2020 shift to more people working from home resulted in a nearly 1-percent reduction in energy usage. She also applauded the city’s urban forestry team for planting 1,000 new trees last year — in addition to the usual 1,274 trees planted to replace dead or hazardous ones.
Mendenhall will propose an ordinance to the City Council to require all new city-funded buildings to be emission-free by 2023. She will also convene a “cross-departmental Sustainable Infrastructure Steering Committee” with the goal of “removing barriers to green infrastructure and capitalizing on new opportunities for sustainable progress.” She committed to backing the city’s redevelopment agency’s “sustainability loan interest rate reduction criteria,” which will incentivize environmentally sustainable development.
Mendenhall said working to fix inequities — including racial, economic and geographical — has always been a priority, but the events of 2020 have heightened the urgency of these efforts.
“I will instruct the leadership of every City department to intentionally consider equity when writing their annual budgets. We’re going to put our money where our mouth is, and I challenge the City Council to do the same,” she said, adding that ensuring economic opportunity for all will be a major priority.
The city has launched a new apprenticeship program, Mendenhall said. She also committed to focusing on representation in government jobs and “equitable recruitment and hiring practices.”
Food insecurity is an area the mayor said she hopes to improve upon this year. Part of that will be the Resident Food Equity Advisors Project, which she said recruits SLC residents who have experienced “food hardship” to have a dialogue with program advisors about their interactions with the city’s food systems, which will then help create recommendations to improve assistance programs.
Criminal justice/racial inequality
Mendenhall said that after last summer’s protests for police reform and racial justice, the city has been “reviewing every aspect of the Salt Lake City Police Department’s policies, budget, and culture.” The Commission on Racial Equity in Policing has been instrumental in that effort, she said.
The mayor said she looks forward to working with the commission and with SLCPD Chief Mike Brown to “bring their recommendations to life” this year.
She added that these reform efforts do not contradict with the city’s dedication to combat rising crime rates.
“I will not let our work toward either be derailed by simplistic political rhetoric,” she said. “Every city’s fundamental job is to ensure that residents, businesses, and visitors are safe, and that those goals are not incompatible with our core values of equity and access to opportunity for every resident.”
An issue with no easy solution, Mendenhall finished her address by speaking on homelessness in Salt Lake City.
“Criminally citing every camper is no more the solution than allowing people to camp freely in neighborhood parks. We cannot force people into available beds in the homeless resource centers, any more than we can allow criminals to take cover in homeless encampments,” she said.
Mendenhall said that this year, the city will turn the “Community Commitment Program” outreach effort into a permanent, multi-agency approach. Since its inception in October, Mendenhall says the program has connected 40 people experiencing homelessness with housing and resources, and more than 120 given temporary shelter.
In addition to applauding the city’s recent and future efforts to help the unsheltered, she called out those who — in her view — aren’t doing enough to combat the “statewide humanitarian crisis” of homelessness.
“It is time for the state government to step up. It is time for other cities and towns in Utah to step up,” she said. “It is long-past time for our partners to come together and shift from short-term crisis management of space into planning for long-term, sustainable solutions for homelessness.”
Specifically, Mendenhall said the state needs to appoint a “homeless services officer” to work with cities throughout the state. She also said Utahns need better access to healthcare, mental health treatment and substance abuse services. She pointed out the need for more affordable housing in SLC “and beyond.” She suggested expanding the idea of what housing looks like — specifically citing “tiny home” communities that other cities have implemented in their homelessness prevention efforts.
She added that those in the city, the county, and nonprofits that are involved in these efforts care deeply about this issue.
“The assumption that we are indifferent — or worse, ill-intentioned — toward people who don’t have a home is the furthest thing from the truth,” she said. She did not specify any specific examples of this. However, the city and county have recently faced scrutiny for homeless camp “clean-ups,” which the administrations say is in the name of public health, but critics accuse them of being unnecessary, degrading and ill-timed when occurring in winter months.
“It’s easy to see an 8-second clip on Tik-Tok or a photo on Instagram and come to the worst possible conclusion,” Mendenhall said. “But assumption is corrosive, and oversimplifying the most complex issue in our city is not constructive.”
Mendenhall concluded by again reiterating what a tumultuous past year it has been and how she looks forward to the future.
“Until we can gather together again, please, take care of yourselves, your families and your neighbors. Stay healthy, stay safe, and know that Salt Lake City is hard at work, for you,” she said.