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The much-anticipated announcement Monday of the locations of four new 150-bed homeless shelters in Salt Lake City was postponed by the office of Mayor Jackie Biskupski after weeks of closed-door meetings.
Negotiations on the four unidentified parcels have not been completed, according to spokesman Matthew Rojas. No time frame was offered for when those deals would be finalized.
The selection of the four sites and two alternatives was made Nov. 10 the outcome of what is described as a lengthy process. They were chosen behind closed doors by the City Council and mayor's staff from about 20 potential lots. The parcels were ranked according to criteria developed by the mayor's site selection commission with input from the public.
Those criteria include things such as access to public transportation and medical care, as well as impact mitigation for the neighborhoods where the new facilities will be built.
Last month, the council, acting as the Redevelopment Agency board, set aside $11.7 million to buy the land. City Councilwoman Lisa Adams, who also is the chairwoman of the RDA board, said the city didn't anticipate that it would spend all of the money, but the council wanted to ensure the Biskupski administration which will make the purchases had flexibility when negotiating.
The list of sites was whittled down in closed meetings, Adams said, to keep the cost of potential parcels from soaring. In addition, she said, a public process would have pitted neighborhood against neighborhood something the council and the administration sought to avoid.
Jeff Hunt, a media attorney and expert in Utah's Open and Public Meetings Act, said the council and mayor were likely within the law, given the real estate exception that allows for closed meetings to save taxpayers money from inflated prices of publicly announced purchase proposals.
"The public is better served with open discussions," he said. "But I think they have cover from the law [in this case]."
Hunt wondered aloud about the difference between this approach and that of the state's Prison Relocation Commission, which announced its list of finalist sites publicly and held public discussions of them before deciding to purchase a parcel west of the Salt Lake City International Airport.
The prison decision was one deliberately designed to be public with knowledge that it would be controversial, officials say.
"It was something we felt, 'this is a generational decision, if not longer,' and [there were] big dollars associated with it, and we wanted it to be as transparent as absolutely possible," said Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, who was a chairman of the prison-siting effort. "But the truth is we didn't have to do any of that. The executive branch could have done it all on [its] own, quietly behind the scenes without any public involvement. And we chose to do just the opposite even though it was a little painful at times."
However, Wilson said, the city's shelter siting is a very different dynamic, trying to conduct simultaneous negotiations on several relatively compact parcels compared to one site of 300 to 500 acres.
"I can't say I blame [the city] a lot for trying to keep it quiet in terms of how they're doing it. It would be very hard to do publicly and would actually cost the taxpayers a lot more money, I would imagine."
The proposal to build new homeless shelters in the capital city is aimed at taking pressure off the Pioneer Park area and The Road Home shelter on Rio Grande Street downtown. It is the outgrowth of almost two years of work by the mayor's site selection commission and Salt Lake County's Collective Impact initiative.
In January, the city and the county sought $27 million from the Legislature to house 500 to 600 homeless people in shelters that also would act as resource centers with services aimed at making those clients self-sufficient.
In March, lawmakers set aside $9.4 million for the project with the possibility of funding similar amounts in 2017 and 2018.
The RDA will be repaid from those funds.
The mayor's commission and the county's initiative settled on two shelters of 250 to 300 beds each. But the City Council objected, saying facilities of that size could not be absorbed by any one neighborhood. Eventually the mayor and the council agreed on four shelters of 150-beds each.
Wilson, who was just elected House majority leader, expressed some impatience with the project.
"My own sense is they need to figure this out and move forward. The Legislature appropriated this money with the expectation that action would be taken, and it's been a lot slower than we expected it to be."