Coronavirus leads Mayor Wilson’s State of the County Speech
Mar 17, 2020 12:08PM
By Mimi Darley Dutton
L-R Dennis Garrett, Mark Torbett and Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson. (Mimi Darley Dutton/City Journals)
By Mimi Darley Dutton | [email protected]
Coronavirus quickly became the lead topic when Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson gave her State of the County speech at Draper City Hall in early March. Having just returned from Washington D.C. the previous night, Wilson explained that she’d met with county employees that morning to prepare those who work with essential services including Meals on Wheels and teams that work with vulnerable populations such as youth and seniors. “We’re getting more prepared by the minute,” she said.
Wilson yielded the floor to Gary Edwards, director of the county’s department of health. “It is not a catastrophic illness. Eighty percent of individuals experience mild illness. We do know that children don’t seem to be having a severe reaction but children are really good spreaders of illness, so we’re concerned with protecting them,” he said.
Edwards said the health department began surveillance of the virus at the end of December and they’ve been ramping up ever since. He said the county has been asked to monitor some individuals daily, most of whom are quarantined to their home for 14 days. Edwards also said the county is in conversations with faith-based organizations to cancel meetings at a moment’s notice, which happened over the course of a few days.
Asked why there’s so much concern over this virus if it kills less people than the flu, Edwards replied, “It’s novel. We don’t know how this is going to behave. We don’t have a treatment or a vaccine for it.” He said the impact on the broader public health system is a concern because they could be inundated while also needing to protect the health care workers. (Writer’s note: One week after this event, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci told the House Oversight and Reform Committee that the novel coronavirus is 10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu.)
Draper councilmember Tasha Lowery asked Edwards about testing for the virus. He said there is only one approved test and that it requires emergency authorization following criteria such as symptoms or close contact with a COVID-19 case. “For those reasons, testing is limited. Even Seattle does not have widespread testing everywhere,” he said. Asked for advice to business people regarding travel while the virus is a problem, Edwards indicated he would travel, but he would do so cautiously and with knowledge about what was happening with the virus in the destination. He advised county residents to visit SLCO.org/health or CDC.gov for factual and up-to-date information.
“I am quite relieved that I’m not a mayor in Washington State right now. They’re flying the plane while they’re building it. I could not have been more proud of the team we assembled to dig deep on these issues. I am confident as any county, city or state in the nation to address this,” Wilson said.
Wilson spoke about a recent property tax increase that passed 7-2 in December at a public hearing on the county’s budget. It will cost the average homeowner about $30 more annually. She said property taxes provide the biggest funds for the county’s work in providing their most fundamental systems. “Had I not been able to get that through, we would have been scrambling at our health department and not able to serve the community. It is my job to deal with the fundamental. I look back on that decision and I’m proud.” Wilson said the county has a Triple-A bond rating and that she’s committed to quality of life opportunities such as the new recreation center opening in Draper. She spoke of county/city partnerships and said she’s advocating for transportation dollars at the state and federal levels.
As a mother to a son who will soon go to college, Wilson said she thinks about where and how he will live in the future. She spoke of the necessary balance between quality of life and business and of cities and the county working together to achieve that balance. “When we have more here, we need to make sure it’s right because our growth rate is very challenging. We have to get on top of cost of housing,” she said.
Wilson’s speech occurred just a day after the controversial vote to approve the Olympia Hills development. The developer of the 922 acres on the north side of Herriman first came to request a zone change for the area when Wilson was a member of the county council. Ben McAdams was county mayor at the time and it was originally vetoed. McAdams went to Washington, D.C. after being elected to congress and Wilson became county mayor. Meanwhile, the developer made changes to the original proposal which led to it passing in a 6-3 vote. “It’s a very sound development now with open space, a partnership with Utah State for a mini-university focusing on agriculture, low income to higher income housing mixed throughout and more dense housing built in the right way with commercial integrated.” Wilson said she won’t veto it. “Private property owners have rights. We did our work and we have very skilled people negotiating or planning and economic development.” She said it will be built over the course of 25 years but that a referendum may be bubbling. “If those folks could undo it, that remains to be seen.”
The mayor was asked about air quality and her efforts to that end. She said she’d worked with the sheriff to roll out hybrid vehicles and that the county has leveraged opportunities with UCAIR to discourage idling, get dirty cars off the road, and deal with the pollution caused by wood-burning stoves. “We’re actually seeing our air quality get better over time, but my concerns are it’s not getting better enough coupled with our growing population. Any lessening of air quality standards nationally are because the Trump administration isn’t understanding,” she said.
Following her speech, Wilson was headed to the capital to represent the 17 cities and five townships that lie within Salt Lake County. “We really do work to be good partners,” she said.