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The need to invest big now in the criminal-justice system or face even bigger costs down the line prompted the Salt Lake County Council on Tuesday to adopt a 2016 budget that extends a 20-year-old tax levy set to expire Dec. 31.
County taxpayers would have seen an $18 charge removed from their property tax bill with the end of a 1995 bond for jail construction.
But Mayor Ben McAdams and six of the nine council members felt it was justifiable for the county to extend the collection of that tax because the $9.4 million it brings in annually will be used for essentially the same purpose advancing public safety.
McAdams wanted to set aside about $5.5 million of that money supplemented with a $6 million appropriation in each of the next two years to build a fund to invest in "Pay for Success" programs aimed at the roots of criminal behavior and recidivism in the county jail.
But the council came up with a revised plan after lengthy negotiations led by Republicans Aimee Winder Newton and Steve DeBry and Democrat Jenny Wilson.
They came to a compromise, knowing several members have reservations about Pay for Success because the concept is new and relatively untested, and in response to criticisms the county shouldn't be holding onto money without a detailed plan for its use.
Newton and the council majority made sure $2.6 million still went to the sheriff's and district attorney's offices to cover their pressing needs; $800,000 was allocated for a case management system to track inmates better.
The remaining $6 million increased by $500,000 from McAdams' proposal through cuts elsewhere in the budget will be used to develop a receiving center so people entering the system can be assessed and referred to mental-health or substance-abuse treatment programs in coordination with probation officers.
Priority will be given to opening a community corrections center in 2017, and a data program will be developed that mixes and matches jail bookings with behavioral-health services to see what works and what doesn't in addressing jail recidivism.
"I know it's not popular to continue a tax that some thought was promised to end," said Newton, adding that she was leaning toward killing it last week. "But as the days went on, my gut said otherwise. How easy it would be to tell my conservative base that I will not raise taxes, and yet how completely sick I would feel to look away and pretend we don't have the problems that we do while criminals roam free on our streets, and while we continue to have four-month-long waiting lists for substance abuse treatment."
DeBry, deputy chief of the Millcreek precinct of the Unified Police Department, spoke with passion about the need for treatment programs to bust a demoralizing cycle of crime for people with mental-health, drug or alcohol issues.
"We can't stick our heads in the sand and wish this away," he said. "If we can prevent just one such incidence [of violence], these programs, receiving centers and new beds will justify everything in totality."
Wilson said this problem has been brewing for a long time, but the county didn't have the wherewithal to tackle it in earnest during the Great Recession and stuck to small, preparatory measures.
"We've done the research, the pieces are in place, pilot programs have been initiated with community partners. The path is clear, and we need to invest now," she said.
Democratic Councilman Arlyn Bradshaw said he found this funding approach even more defensible after reviewing the tax rates charged for county services in three years 1995, when the jail bond was first assessed; 2001, when the county changed from a commission to a council form of government; and now.
That analysis, he said, showed the taxes paid by a resident in a $200,000 home went from $548 in 1995 to $460 in 2001 to $433 this year.
"So today's average homeowner pays $115 less of their money to Salt Lake County for, hopefully, more efficient services than two decades ago," Bradshaw said.
Republicans Richard Snelgrove, Max Burdick and Michael Jensen voted against the budget. They expressed displeasure with the idea of extending the bond levy for purposes other than its stated intent.
Newton's budget motion also said a two-day summit will be held in January to firm up specifically where the $6 million will be used this year.
She expects the council, district attorney, sheriff, mayor and behavioral-health officials to participate in "identifying priorities, funding issues and long-term goals and performance measures."