Tensions between Hughes and Biskupski erupt over Operation Rio Grande

Well, frustrations UtahPolicy.com had heard about between Utah House Speaker Greg Hughes and Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski over “Operation Rio Grande” erupted on live radio Tuesday morning.

By the time the Salt Lake City Council met in the afternoon/evening to hear from the mayor, the speaker, and Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox, tempers had cooled.

But, politically speaking, “Operation Rio Grande” is not going as smoothly as some believed.

New issues that came up:

  • Sept. 20 special legislative session may be called by GOP Gov. Gary Herbert where lawmakers will approve a special lease for state work in the Rio Grande area – the so-called “safe space.” Later, in the 2018 general session money reallocated to the effort.
  • Up to 80 new law officers must be hired – 34 in Salt Lake City, with 34 more new Utah Highway Patrol troopers – all aimed at keeping law enforcement running to ground drug dealers and criminals preying on the needy.
  • The state, not the city, will manage a “safe area” on the Rio Grand Street compound, and indemnify the city for liability. Homeless folks can stay in the area – admitted through special I.D. cards — and not be day camping in parks and other public areas.
  • By Sept. 19 Biskupski and the City Council will take actions to close the street for at least two years, maybe longer.
  • Salt Lake City must come up with a “new” $2.2 million in funding for ORG, on a budget much smaller than the state’s. It was not clear Tuesday where all that money will come from.

The issue boil-over deals with personalities and, to some extent, an embattled mayor who – a view of Tuesday’s City Council meeting showed – is not always seeing some of her Councilmembers having her back.

The day started with Hughes, R-Draper, calling into KSL Radio’s Doug Wright show and – to put it mildly – calling out Biskupski.

Hughes said that the mayor was directly tying a long-planned closure of Rio Grande Street at 200 South – a power he said Biskupski has – to more state funding going to the city for homeless/criminal issue.

Moments later, Biskupski called in Wright to give her side. She was more careful in her wording – saying while Hughes may want the street closed now, she has to follow city ordinances and a public process.

The mayor did not directly refute Hughes’ claim that she was tying the street closure to more state funding coming to the city.

Later before the Council, Biskupski said that on Monday Hughes et al. demanded the city come up with an extra $2.2 million – mainly for 34 more city police officers.

“We don’t know where we will get that money, yet,” she told the Council. About $1.5 million could come from the city’s surplus account – but hiring new cops is an ongoing expense, not a one-time check.

Hughes said the city is being asked to spend $9.9 million to receive an overall Rio Grande spending package of $67 million – a good deal considering the homeless problem is centered in the city.

Cox said the state doesn’t want to wait for Biskupski to take certain actions – specifically closing Rio Grande Street at 200 South (moving southward to create the compound).

Biskupski suggested to the Council a three-week timeframe for decisions, giving time for citizen input and such.

But Cox said action could, and should, come more quickly.

“We can’t screw this up,” Cox told the Council. The long-term phases 2 and 3 of “Operation Rio Grande” – treatment and getting real jobs for the homeless – must stay on an already-agreed upon time table.

And that will be harmed if the drug trade moves back into Rio Grande.

“We need to create this safe space as soon as possible,” Hughes told the Council.

In an interview later with UtahPolicy, Hughes said, “Every day that safe space is not up and running I will be saying publicly who is responsible for that, and detailing the costs, in money and increased drug trade. We cannot wait until October for all this to happen. We will not fall back on this.”

What happens now?

Stay tuned.

But while state, city, and county officials have said from the beginning they will work together on helping the homeless, at least for a day — and maybe longer — the good feelings are breaking down.