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Murray Journal

Trails, tourism among 2023 highlights for Salt Lake County

Jan 04, 2024 01:52PM ● By Ella Joy Olsen

Six members of the Salt Lake County Council after their meeting to deliberate on the 2024 budget on Nov. 21, 2023. L-R: Suzanne Harrison, Arlyn Bradshaw, Aimee Winder Newton, David Alvord, Dea Theodore, Laurie Stringham. (Photo Aimee Winder Newton)

The Salt Lake County Council just wrapped up the budget for 2024, and now is a good time to look back over the highlights and lowlights of 2023. 

A reminder: budgeting is one of the primary jobs of the county council, providing ongoing funding for the many diverse, existing county programs. “Salt Lake County is proud to be one of only 29 counties in the entire country (there are 3,143 counties in the United States) that has a AAA bond rating,” Aimee Winder Newton District 3 county councilwoman and council chair said. “It means we run a good budget and rating agencies believe we will pay our debts.”

County services include health and human services, county parks and recreation centers, tourism and culture, libraries, aging and adult services, mental health and criminal justice. 

A big snow year

After a big snow year and a snowpack over 200% of normal, on April 13, 2023 County Mayor Jenny Wilson declared a state of emergency in anticipation of potentially devastating flooding. Affected were over 600 miles of creeks and canals within Salt Lake County. 

The county provided enough sand to fill 500,000 sandbags, and who can forget the community showing up to fill bags for themselves, and for their neighbors? 

The state emergency ended July 10, 2023, with much of the potential damage mitigated. “We were able to manage the runoff from such an incredible, record-breaking snowpack because of a combination of early planning, improved infrastructure, cutting-edge data, around-the-clock debris clearing, and a [spring] season of perfect weather,” said Wilson.

Decades of infrastructure improvements since 1983 (year of the last major flood) greatly improved the ability of Salt Lake County Flood Control to control water flows and manage debris, as creeks, culverts and pipes were equipped to carry more water than they could in 1983.

Flood control costs are an annual county budget line item and include personnel costs, ongoing maintenance, and annual dredging of sediment and debris from retention ponds and creek beds and run about $6.9 million annually. The cost for the flood emergency of 2023, itself, was approximately $1.8 million.

New and improved trails

“County residents have told us trail development is their number one priority over the past decade, based on needs our assessment surveys,” Patrick Leary, associate director for Parks, Trails & Open Space for Salt Lake County Parks & Recreation, said. “Desire for new and improved trails has consistently floated to the top of the list.”

So in August 2023, Phase One of the Butterfield Trailhead Regional Park opened to the community.

“The Butterfield trail system is located in the Oquirrh Mountains in the southwest corner of Salt Lake County and is a game changer for the region,” Leary said. “Now residents in this growing party of the county won’t have to cut across the valley to get to an easily accessible hillside trail system.”

Butterfield includes over 13 miles of multiuse trails for hikers, mountain bikers and equestrians within the Southwest Canyon Trails Network, and also provides a connector to Yellow Fork and Rose Canyon trails. Phases Two and Three (to be completed in the next couple of years) will include improved parking for 500 cars and equestrian vehicles, kiosks, improved restrooms and a maintenance facility. 

Uniquely, the Butterfield trail system is situated on reclaimed land which was once a mining site. It was created in collaboration with the county, Rio Tinto and the Bureau of Land Management. 

Another big trail milestone, the final phase of the Parley’s Trail, was completed in 2023. Parley’s Trail is an 8-mile east-west walking and biking trail connecting the Bonneville Shoreline Trail and the Jordan River Parkway, providing a corridor through neighborhoods to parks, schools, churches and rural areas and running through portions of West Valley, South Salt Lake, Millcreek and Salt Lake City. 

“We’re lucky because this is a trail system that has been consistently funded with bonds, grants, federal, state and county dollars since about 2004, so construction has been ongoing” said Walt Gilmore, associate division director of Salt Lake County Parks & Recreation, and who has also worked on the trail project for 21 years. “This final phase was expensive, about $6 million dollars, and included two bridge structures to get over the Jordan River, but we can celebrate that it’s finally complete.” 

Mental healthcare access

Currently, a new Huntsman Mental Health facility is under construction in South Salt Lake on 3300 S. 1000 West, a centralized location with access to major transportation corridors.

“On one side is the jail and one side is a homeless shelter,” said Mark Rapaport, CEO of Huntsman Mental Health Institute. “And as we know jails right now are one of the largest inpatient mental health facilities in the country. And we also know the majority of the people who are homeless have an underlying mental health disorder. So this facility will allow us to be near where some of the people with the greatest needs are.”

This new center, the Kem and Carolyn Gardner Mental Health Crisis Care Center, will be completed in late 2024 or early 2025, but in the meantime there is an ongoing mental health and homelessness crisis. 

So to bridge the gap in care, in 2023 the county appropriated $2.5 million from federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) dollars to retrofit the existing Huntsman Mental Health facilities (near the University Hospital) to create a receiving center, giving those in crisis a place to go that isn’t a jail or an emergency room.

At the receiving center, mental health professionals have 24 hours to get patients settled and stable, to get them connected to community resources, and to figure out a path for recovery.

“The center has 12 beds, and though occupancy varies from day to day, utilization has been high at about an average of nine beds occupied,” Kevin Curtis, crisis services director at Huntsman Mental Health Institute, said. “And the average length of stay is about 10 hours.”

2023 funding also covers 17 months of staffing until the new center is finished. The temporary adult receiving center is located at 501 Chipeta Way and is open 24/7. After the new center in South Salt Lake opens, the renovated adult receiving center will likely be focused on mental healthcare for juveniles and children. 

“The receiving center is a place where police officers can bring those who are struggling with a mental health crisis to get immediate help,” County Councilwoman Winder Newton said. “It’s less costly than care in an emergency room and a better place to get help for minor offenses than in jail.”

Conventions and Tourism

Tourism is a big part of county government as tourists and convention attendees generate tax revenue, thereby saving Salt Lake County residents (taxpayers) money. Visit Salt Lake is a private, nonprofit corporation responsible for the promotion of Salt Lake as a convention and travel destination. In partnership with Salt Lake County, it is the marketing arm tasked with attracting and providing support for conventions and leisure travelers. 

A couple of successful conventions of 2023 illustrate the diverse groups courted by Visit Salt Lake for their convention needs. As an additional perk, business travelers, after being impressed with Salt Lake, will often return for leisure travel.

The first is the Society of Child Research & Development Convention. Salt Lake competed against Denver, Atlanta, St. Louis, Cleveland, Indianapolis, and Toronto to secure this convention. The organization anticipated their convention in Salt Lake would attract 4,100 attendees, but it far exceeded expectations, and 6,400 attendees attended the event. These visitors spent $6.2 million while in the community.

Another of note is the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. This convention attracted nearly 12,000 attendees who spent approximately $11.6 million. The SHPE leadership was so pleased that Salt Lake has been selected to host this convention again in 2027, 2030, and 2034. 

County Library Services

In a tight budget year the county was still able to put an additional $280,000 into digital library resources such as audio and e-reader materials, in an effort to reduce wait times for these popular items. 

Additionally, late fees will be waived for children. This program was piloted during the summer of 2023, based on the concern that late fees are a barrier to lower income families coming to the library to borrow books and other learning materials and was deemed a success. 

After three months, if the materials are still not returned to the library, the cost will be charged to the cardholder. The 2024 library budget contains $115,000 from the Library Fund to replace the potential lost revenue from fees collected. 

County Rec Centers free pass for youth

In an effort to improve mental and physical health for youth, the county has provided budget dollars to provide a free annual rec pass to all youth (ages 3-17). The program, called My County Recs Pass, will likely be rolling in early summer 2024, to give the centers time to staff and prepare additional programming.

“We’re seeing a rise in mental health issues for teens and youth, and according the U.S. Surgeon General, something that can help is social connection, getting out there and doing something active with other people,” Newton said. “This is a great program because the county is in the business of improving mental and physical health to residents.” 

There are age limits, in that children under the age of 10 cannot attend without a parent, and in that case only the parents would pay, but the county is hoping this will provide more active family time.

The My County Recs Pass program is projected to cost $2.3 million annually. This cost represents the personnel and operational costs, in addition to the reduction in revenue from youth pass sales. 

“However, we are expecting some new revenues from adult passes purchased by parents and increased sign-ups for programs,” said Robin Chalhoub, director of community services for Salt Lake County. “We did not add that [increased revenue] to the proposal and we are excited to see how it increases.” λ