Frank Pignanelli & LaVarr Webb: Salt Lake issues heating up in preparation of November mayoral race

With an important mayoral race in November, Salt Lake City issues are heating up. Our analysis of key items receiving attention:

Panhandling is a big problem downtown, and most residents think it should be illegal. Can panhandling be eliminated or at least reduced, and would it help to move the Road Home homeless shelter?

Pignanelli: “Why lie? Its for beer!” — message on cardboard sign held by honest panhandler

Most panhandlers are substance abusers or financial scammers whose lies to by-passers about lack of food or shelter are protected by the First Amendment. These fraudsters take advantage of big-hearted Utahns, and their blight on downtown will end only when their victims stop obliging. (Decades of hardcore Irish Catholic guilt trips hardened me against their sloppy pleas).

Shelters do not breed beggars. Panhandling and homelessness are separate issues with different causations — the latter deserve society’s serious attention. Our local Road Home charity continually receives national recognition for cost-effectively transitioning so many Utahns into permanent housing. Moving the shelter may disrupt this significant progress. Further, discussions are a pointless endeavor until a satisfactory alternative is identified.

Unfortunately, rational deliberations on this issue are clouded by the character assassination attempts targeted at the saintly Road Home director Matthew Minkevitch through spokespersons of the Pioneer Park Coalition. (Perhaps Mother Theresa is next on the hit list.) This entity (created by a developer with property interests close to the shelter) claims a membership of hundreds, but most are organizations invited to meetings who never affirmatively agreed to participate in the group (as several told me). Shrewd insiders realize the Coalition PR attack dogs are part of a real estate play in the area.

So the original Coalition organizer is making demands through misrepresenting who it is and unfairly blaming others (aka panhandling).

Webb: I recently watched an aggressive panhandler work the lunch crowd outside a restaurant on South Temple close to Main Street. He’s a young guy and I see him most days. He doesn’t sit passively asking for money as people walk by. He walks right up, pleads for help and keeps asking, following his prospects for several steps if he doesn’t get money immediately. It’s hard for nice people to say no. In the half hour I watched him, he probably made $10-$15. About every sixth person he hit gave money. On a busy day downtown, he can get in front of hundreds of people.

Panhandling can’t be outlawed, but it is a growing problem downtown. I walk two blocks to work and two blocks home and I get hit up by five or six panhandlers each way — usually the same people day after day. It gets awfully tiresome and visitors are repulsed, wondering why SLC has more panhandlers than other large cities.

The only real solution: don’t give. The downtown street people all know where to get free services, including meals and a place to sleep.

It would help to move the homeless shelter. The greater downtown area has many dozens of social services facilities, including homeless shelters, homeless permanent housing, addiction recovery and detoxification centers, all manner of low-income housing, food pantries, facilities for people with serious mental illnesses, halfway houses, women’s shelters and so forth.

Downtowners are certainly willing to take our fair share of these facilities, but right now we’re simply overwhelmed. If the homeless shelter is moved, we’ll still have far more than our share of these facilities.

Salt Lake City’s population nearly doubles during the workday, increasing city service costs, but survey research by UtahPolicy.com shows city residents aren’t keen on finding a way to tax commuters to help pay for services, and residents definitely don’t want to be taxed more themselves. Is it silly for the city to pursue some sort of commuter tax?

Pignanelli: Some "urban visionary" types love a commuter tax, which occasionally rears its head in Salt Lake City. But the fee is a disincentive to economic development and has not succeeded in other areas (i.e. Detroit, Pittsburgh, etc.) Furthermore, state lawmakers hate the idea so much they may mandate summary executions for those who suggest it. Common-sense residents overwhelmingly reject the idea (thank goodness).

Webb: I don’t see a practical way for the city to charge a commuter fee. SLC does shoulder extra burdens because of the big influx of workers. The city also has a large amount of tax-exempt property. But the city also has big shopping malls, high-rise office buildings and a very large commercial district. So things balance out.

How will these and other downtown issues impact the mayoral race?

Pignanelli: Downtown economic vibrancy has not influenced the mayor's election for decades. The current race is all about the incumbent Ralph Becker and whether his campaign will have the field operations to encourage supporters to the polls. Becker's campaign manager, Matt Lyon, is among the best in the business and is a factor in this contest.

Webb: Overall, Salt Lake City is doing well and residents are generally happy with city government. That bodes well for Mayor Ralph Becker, but political barnacles pile up when a politician seeks a third term, so the race will be competitive.