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Bill that would require Utah County to change form of government held in committee

A bill that would require Utah County to change its form of government from a three-member commission to either an executive-council or manager-council did not make it out of committee on Wednesday.

House Bill 257 would require all counties in Utah with populations of 500,000 or more to switch to a form of government that separates executive and legislative powers. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Brady Brammer, R-Highland, said the bill was targeted at Utah County specifically, which is the only county in the state with a population over 500,000 that currently has a commission form of government.

“We have had substantial problems with the Utah County Commission, where there have been commissioners that have been rendered essentially ineffective through various personal issues and otherwise,” Brammer said on Wednesday. “And that has created a lot of problems, particularly in the relationships between cities and counties.”

The House Political Subdivisions Committee voted 9-2 to hold the bill in committee, meaning it will not move on to the House floor but could be discussed again in committee at a later date.

Rep. Jim Dunnigan, R-Taylorsville, said he agreed with Brammer that a three-person commission was not suitable for a county as large as Utah County but felt that the decision to switch forms of government should not be forced upon voters.

This November, Utah County residents will vote on an optional plan to switch from a three-member commission to a full-time mayor and a five-member, part-time council. Dunnigan said a bill like H.B. 257 shouldn’t be considered until that vote takes place.

“I agree with you,” said Dunnigan, referring the Brammer’s position that a three-member commission is problematic for Utah County. “But Utah County voters may disagree.”

Brammer defended his bill and said it is universally accepted that separating legislative and executive powers is a good thing. He pointed out that a Utah County Good Governance Advisory created to study the change in government question recommended that the county transition away from its current three-member commission.

Cedar Hills Mayor Jenny Rees and Mountainland Association of Governments Executive Director Andrew Jackson were both present in Wednesday’s committee meeting and said they supported the bill.

Brammer added that “there have been efforts within Utah County to defeat that (change in government) process by those who would wish to not have a decrease in their power ... This has become a real problem in Utah County.

A citizen petition filed last July that failed to get the required number of signatures would have put the question of whether Utah County’s three-member commission should expand to five members on a ballot this November. Utah County Commissioner Bill Lee was one of the sponsors of that petition, who said he opposes switching to a mayor-led government because “it’s a consolidation of power into one person.”

Last Thursday, Lee said he was confused why the Legislature was considering a bill to require the county to change forms of government when voters would make that choice later this year.

“I don’t understand why we’re trying to guide it or skew the perspective with it when we’re in that process right now trying to see which way it goes,” he said. “I think we should go through that process first.”

Commissioner Nathan Ivie, who has advocated for the county switching forms of government, said on Wednesday he supports Brammer’s bill.

If passed by the Legislature, the bill would require the county commission to propose two optional plans, either a mayor-council or manager-council form of government, and place them on a ballot in November 2021.

Brammer said this is different than the ballot question voters will consider this year because it gives multiple options and doesn’t allow for voters to choose to keep the current form of government.

“As opposed to ‘choose (yes) or no,’ this is ‘choose A or B,’” Brammer said.

Eagle Mountain
New Eagle Mountain center uses equine therapy to treat children with disabilities

Bergen Russon’s client was having a rough day.

Then the horse being used in her therapy session brought its head to the client’s chest, and she hugged him. It was a small moment, but enough to completely change everything.

“He (the horse) knew what she needed in a way, and connected with her on a whole different level than I ever could have done,” said Russon, the recreation therapy program coordinator for Strides Pediatric Therapy in Eagle Mountain.

Strides Pediatric Therapy aims to make more of those connections that contribute to a child’s therapeutic progress. Located on 10 acres in Eagle Mountain, the organization opened last month, providing six therapy horses for equine therapy, along with miniature donkeys and goats in addition to traditional therapy services in an on-site, integrated clinic. Strides Pediatric Therapy offers occupational, physical, speech, mental health and recreational therapy, along with adaptive riding for those up to the age of 21 who have disabilities or other needs.

When children sit on a horse, the action promotes the normal gait-based muscle function as if the child was walking on two legs. Essentially, the horse does the work for the child, who receives the benefits. The equine therapy happens indoors, in a climate-controlled barn, with horses who were chosen based on their personalities.

If a child is running around, the horse will stay still. The children will then begin to match a horse’s calmness.

“There is a piece of it that we just can’t explain,” said Marley Juarez, the director of operations and an owner of Strides Pediatric Therapy. “There is a piece that is just so healing and therapeutic that just transcends logic.”

She said the unique form of therapy gives children a sense of accomplishment. They may be in a wheelchair and unable to try out for the same soccer team as their friends, but being able to navigate a horse through cones gives them a boost of confidence.

Many children start off by staring up at the horses and thinking that they won’t be able to do it. Russon said by the time they get off the horse, they think they can do anything.

“When we are working out there, we are learning riding skills,” Russon said. “We are learning to be a good riding partner.”

When one client was overwhelmed, the herd of miniature donkeys approached him individually, instead of as a group like they typically do.

“The ability for these animals to sense a situation, it is pretty amazing,” said Elizabeth Lebrecht, an owner.

The owners chose Eagle Mountain as a location due to it being centrally located for the Utah County, Salt Lake County and Tooele areas. It also gave them the ability to be surrounded by a large, nature-based space and provide enough land for the horses.

“We needed this open space and we didn’t want to have high rises next door and all this crazy, concentrated population to work around,” said Kacie Preysz, the director of clinic services and an owner. “It is a very therapeutic space for everyone.”

She said that not only includes the clients and their families, but also therapists, who can face burnout.

While equine therapy is big on the east coast, Preysz came to Utah and didn’t see a lot of it. Because it is more unusual in the west, the business has had to educate families on the benefits of the treatment.

“There is a big push right now for education on it, so parents are becoming more and more educated, doctors are starting to understand it and refer for it from a medical standpoint,” Preysz said.

She sees it eventually becoming as prominent as aquatic therapy.

Preysz said the children become invested in the horses, and in turn their therapy, bringing the animals snacks and presents. They see the horses as a pure entity that allow the clients to open up and relax. Preysz said one client referred to her time with a horse as “an hour of bliss in the darkness.”

The horses are ridden by an able-bodied, adult rider to maintain their balance and are given a strict schedule. They aren’t able to be used in more than three therapy sessions a day, and not more than two in a row. They also get time off and miniature vacations.

The organization relies heavily on a team of trained volunteers. Each therapy session that includes a horse has a leader who maintains control of the horse the entire time, a therapist and a side walker, making it so there is an adult on either side of the child at all times.

Strides Pediatric Therapy plans to develop the site further in the spring and eventually build a trail.

Legislature considering big price tag solution for Utah’s affordable housing shortage

The Utah Legislature is considering a bill this session that would put tens of millions toward building and preserving affordable housing, as well as offering rental assistance to low-income families at risk of eviction.

Senate Bill 39 would appropriate $20.3 million in one-time funds and $10 million in ongoing funds to the state’s Olene Walker Housing Loan Fund, which “develop(s) housing that is affordable for very low-income, low-income and moderate-income persons as defined by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD),” according to the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

Of this money, $15 million would fund bonds for private investors to develop affordable rental housing, the bill’s text says. Additionally, $5 million would match private dollars for the preservation of existing affordable housing units and $300,000 would be used to assist predevelopment costs for affordable housing projects in rural Utah.

“So it’s not just (going toward housing) along the Wasatch Front,” Sen. Jacob Anderegg, R-Lehi, the bill’s sponsor, said during a Senate Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee meeting last Tuesday, adding that a lack of affordable housing “is a statewide issue.”

Anderegg said the bill was put together based on discussions and recommendations from the state’s Commission of Housing Affordability, which he serves on.

The bill would also put money toward “rental assistance for families with children that are homeless or who are at risk of being homeless,” according to its text. Rental assistance may include subsidizing rent payments, subsidizing temporary or transitional housing or providing money for application fees or deposits.

Anderegg said statistics show that the vast majority of people are evicted solely for financial reasons, as opposed to being evicted for drug use or other criminal activity, adding that allocating these funds would save the state money in the long run.

“(It’s) an ounce of prevention versus 10 pounds of intervention,” he said.

The Senate committee approved the bill 2-1 last Tuesday, sending it to the Senate for a full vote. That vote has yet to take place.

A number of people testified in favor of S.B. 39 during the committee meeting, including Nelson Lotz of the Pioneer Park Coalition, Bill Tippets of the Crossroads Urban Center and Jaycee Skinner of the Salt Lake Chamber.

Kristin Brown, a board member of the Food and Care Coalition in Provo, said the bill would be good for the state’s homeless population, 10% of which is served by her organization.

While the coalition provides rehabilitation and other services to those experiencing homeless, the biggest obstacle the people they serve face is that “they have nowhere to live” since there is so little affordable housing, Brown said, adding that there are particularly few one-bedroom apartments.

Mike Ostermiller of the Utah Association of Realtors expressed “enthusiastic support” for the bill, which he said “won’t totally and completely solve the problem, but … it will make a significant difference and move us in the right direction.”

“These people that we’re helping through this funding, through this legislation, they are tomorrow’s homeowners,” Ostermiller said. “They’re tomorrow’s real estate investors, tomorrow’s employers, tomorrow’s taxpayers. And anything we can do to help them is good for the state of Utah, it’s good for our economy and it’s the right thing to do.”

Sen. Daniel McCay, R-Riverton, who chairs the Senate Economic Development and Workforce Services Committee, said he opposes the bill and that the true solution to making housing more affordable is to change the state’s zoning laws.

“I’m really struggling with this bill from a philosophical standpoint,” McCay said, “because I know the problems with zoning.”

Anderegg said he also had concerns about zoning but that he felt this didn’t take away from the importance of funding and incentivizing affordable housing.

Anderegg told the Daily Herald in January that running an affordable housing bill this session was a big priority for him. He added that there are aspects of the bill he doesn’t support but felt he needed to run it since it reflects the will of the Commission on Housing Affordability.

“Even though … as a conservative Republican, there are aspects of the bill that I’m not entirely thrilled with,” Anderegg said.

Wasatch Mental Health, county addiction services merge

Utah County Department of Drug and Alcohol Prevention and Treatment services are being merged with Wasatch Mental Health and the Utah County Health Department, the organizations and the Utah County Commission announced Wednesday.

“We see this as a positive thing,” said Ralph Clegg, the executive director of the Utah County Health Department.

County substance abuse treatment services will be transitioned underneath Wasatch Mental Health. The Utah County Health Department will take over prevention services.

Drug and alcohol prevention services used to be under the Health Department until they were separated several years ago. Clegg said the Utah County Health Department often cooperates with substance abuse prevention groups for youth drug and tobacco prevention efforts.

The shift back, he said, makes sense.

“Prevention is our business,” Clegg said. “That is what the health department is all about.”

The majority of county employees will transition to Wasatch Mental Health or the Utah County Health Department. There will be no immediate shifts of offices or service locations.

“It is a friendly merger,” said Utah County Commissioner Nathan Ivie.

The merger has been discussed by the county government for a couple of months. Ivie said with the director of the Utah County Department of Drug and Alcohol Prevention and Treatment retiring, it was a good time for the change.

He said the merger will allow for the entities to provide the best services as Medicaid expansion moves forward. Ivie said the mergers will also make the organizations more efficient. Due to the county navigating through new Medicaid billing formulas, he did not have an exact dollar amount of how much the merger will save Utah County

The merger, he said, will keep programs and services at their current level.

Ivie would like to see prevention efforts emphasized even more.

“We get a lot more return on prevention than we do on treatment,” he said.

Utah County was one of two counties across Utah that hasn’t already combined its mental health authorities, according to Juergen Korbanka, the executive director of Wasatch Mental Health.

Korbanka said the change will allow Wasatch Mental Health to provide more integrated and comprehensive behavioral health services.

“The hope is that through this merger we will possibly create more efficiency and create more access points for substance abuse disorders in the county,” he said.

Details will be finalized in the next few months, with the merger expected to be complete by July 1.