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Sandy Journal

‘My focus is the people, always’—Sandy mayor reflects on the past year

Jan 05, 2023 03:21PM ● By Sarah Morton Taggart

Sandy Mayor Monica Zoltanski poses in front of Sandy City Hall to cheer on the U.S. Men’s National Team during the 2022 World Cup. (Photo courtesy Monica Zoltanski)

Sandy City’s first female mayor just wrapped up her first year in office. The City Journals sat down with her to look back on the challenges and accomplishments of 2022 and look ahead to the next 50 years. 

What has surprised you about being mayor?

How expensive everything is to run a city. Until this year, I had no idea. When I was a council member my job was to set the budget, make sure the budget balances. But from the operations end, now as mayor over all the departments of our city, we’ve been hit hard this year by inflation, fuel prices, rising costs of labor and supply chain issues that have just sent our contract estimates skyrocketing.

As a resident and even as a city councilmember, I used to look at some of our equipment purchases. A million dollars for a fire truck? That can’t be true. And then I learned. How did I learn? By going to the fire stations, doing the ride-alongs. I toured the manufacturing headquarters in Wisconsin where our last fire truck was custom built for Sandy. 

Everyone has a custom engine. This is how they do it. We have this urban/suburban/wilderness interface, so a working fire truck has to be a hybrid. It has to be a fire engine where it can pump water, it has to be ready for medical equipment. It has to be ready to get into tight neighborhoods like in Historic Sandy or parks and trails. So it has to be very nimble.

That’s just one example. We’re known as a well-planned, very organized, professionally run city. Our contractor estimates, our road projects, bulk waste, asphalting, our water projects, all the estimates this year…normally you build in a 10% contingency. And then we cautiously bumped it up to 20% contingency. Now the bids for the jobs are coming in at 40, 50, 60% over estimates. 

So that’s something that everybody is experiencing when you go to the store. This same thing is happening, but on the city scale. So with over 600 employees and a $150-million budget we are turning over every couch cushion to find the funds to maintain that high level of services Sandy residents expect. That’s been our challenge this year. 

And then mayoral duties. When I was campaigning last year, I was working around the clock knocking doors as a grassroots candidate. I kept telling myself, should you be elected, it’s not going to be like this. It’s going to be a manageable schedule. You’ll have staff, you will have time and there’s a rhythm to the year and it’s going to be a lot easier than campaigning. And while campaigning was hard, nothing can prepare you for the time demands of this position. 

So that’s one of the biggest surprises: how much the mayor's presence is needed in a city like Sandy. And I love it and I rise to the occasion. I am very active in the community. I’m out every day. It also brings you to the table in many different circles. My view has broadened. I’m always thinking about service to Sandy, but this position has vast opportunities to influence regional decisions, statewide decisions on transportation, housing, economic growth, and quality of life issues in Utah.

The learning curve has been high. It’s the time management, to managing the budget, the formal duties of the mayor and the events. What I love the most is the day-to-day social interactions with my constituents and the people of Sandy. That is definitely the highlight. I love trips to Costco in my red cowboy hat. There is no work life balance at this moment. I’m all in for Sandy City. And I love it. It’s an honor.

What is something you’re proud of accomplishing this year? 

Fire department reform. Moving from a two-handed engine policy to three-hand. That has transformed and elevated the level of safety for our firefighters and certainly the safety for our community. 

There have been so many stories that have come in since I made the change in July. Real stories where they can get in, mobilize, set the scene and combat a fire, avoid risk, aid in a rescue, resuscitate a cardiac arrest victim, a choking victim. Just the immense feedback I’ve had from fire professionals, my fire department staff, chiefs, chiefs from around the valley. That was something worth fighting for. 

And that led to an in-depth review of how we are investing in our fire department in Sandy. And I learned that there’s a lot of things that have been deferred. And so the second half of the year has been serving our firefighters, working with City Council, talking to residents, community stakeholders and identifying the primary needs of the fire departments. 

This year for example, we’ve looked at the three-two policy. Now that sounds easy, but what does that really mean? It means we need to hire eight new firefighters to cover those shifts. And you can’t just put up a help wanted ad in the window of the fire department. Recruiting, vetting and training a firefighter is a six-month-long process. And then once they are outfitted and equipped and ready to come on, they need field training to make sure that they understand the city. Sandy City has high standards for service and so it’s a long process. 

Starting last summer when we made the change, and with the support of the City Council—I have to credit our City Council—they got on board very quickly once the need was identified. Our firefighters have filled that unmet need to staff three hands on an engine. So our firefighters are doing extra shifts and a lot of extra service away from their families. We have not skipped a beat but it’s because of the dedication of our fire personnel. We couldn’t do it without them, and I’m so grateful. I don’t want them to burn out.

Just this last month I attended the graduation of three new recruits who graduated at the top of their class at the Salt Lake City Fire Academy. So our goal is to by mid-year be fully staffed with those eight new positions. But everything comes at a price. It’s about $600,000 just for the additional personnel that’s needed and that’s in today's costs. So this next year's budget cycle we’re planning on maintaining that increased staffing level. 

What is something you’ve really fought for? 

I’ve really fought for Little Cottonwood Canyon and the Sandy community who is resoundingly opposed to building a gondola. That was an issue that was central to my campaign. The first act after coming into office, a resident survey was launched and showed that Sandy residents don’t want the gondola, and they sure don’t want to pay for it. I’ve used my position to learn more, connect with representatives at every level of government to convey that message, and to also offer solutions and alternatives. 

It’s not enough to say we don’t want the gondola. We’ve come to the table with something better. The goal for UDOT is to reduce traffic on the canyon road by 30%. And I know we achieve that without massive taxpayer spending. There’s better ways. Some of those ways include tolling, reservations, carpooling using technology for rideshares….There are ways to get up and down the canyon safely without taking one vehicle at a time for each skier or each family. 

Since I have been mayor, so many people have come to me with very thoughtful ideas. I have open office hours once a month for residents to come on any issue and talk to me. A couple was in my office a week ago. They live at the mouth of the canyon and can see the traffic backlog right out their kitchen window. These are times when it hits the hardest. Let’s focus on managing cars at these times. 

Share a time as mayor when you changed your mind about something you’d been sure about before.  

I would say (that) with respect to high-density housing. My background is advocating for open space. I ran on the platform of preserving our single-family neighborhoods in Sandy. I live in east Sandy, and we’ve seen a lot of pocket development. You know, neighbors feel very threatened when they see those orange signs (for rezoning) coming up. I just felt that wherever we could fit it there was this push for high density. And so I became one of those people who was triggered by the words “high-density housing.” 

But as mayor, I’ve learned about urban design, walkability, the need for affordability. And I’m looking for ways for Sandy to participate and lead out. Do we have areas in Sandy where it can work, like along transportation corridors? Absolutely. And so now I’m more open to the discussion and I’ve learned from different developers who have great projects in the city that can work, like in the Cairns District and between I-15 and State Street. We are ready for it, and I’m embracing it. 

So I’d say my reaction to the terms density and affordability have definitely changed. It’s simple to say we’re in a housing crisis and we need more housing. But what we’ve seen in Sandy is we get the density, but we don’t get the affordability. I can see that so clearly from my position. I don’t want Sandy to become an enclave for the wealthy. I want Sandy to be family-friendly, affordable. Families are the heart and future of our city. So we can’t just be building townhomes and condos for the wealthy. 

We need to get serious about affordability and we need public policy in the state of Utah that helps builders who want to build and cities who want to host affordable housing. Sandy can’t fund and build its own projects. I would love to build workforce housing for our police, firefighters, snowplow drivers, parks crew, school teachers. My workforce lives in Eagle Mountain and Saratoga Springs. I have a firefighter who lives in Idaho and that’s not right. It’s in the city’s interest to offer affordable housing for our workforce because if we have a natural disaster or an earthquake, how are our first responders going to come into the city living an hour or two hours away? We’re leaving ourselves very vulnerable.

So my focus is on affordability and that doesn’t mean low-income. It means market affordability. A city employee should qualify for a $300,000 townhouse but we don’t have that inventory. So we need to either subsidize the housing that’s being built or the city needs to help our workers who are essential workers buy those homes in our community. And we’re not going to be able to achieve that without funding from state or federal sources.

I’d say that at the end of my first year I have a deeper understanding of the nuances to the question of development versus keeping everything the same. We have to prepare for the future. As a councilmember I was looking at this year’s budget, next year’s budget. Maybe a couple of years ahead. As mayor you look 30, 50 years ahead. You have to.

So what do you see 30 years ahead?

Maintaining our core identity as a beautiful, well-managed city. Having a great mix of businesses that serve the needs of the local community. Restaurants, recreation, nightlife, shopping, entertainment venues, great public gathering places for community events. Quality schools, neighborhoods that are safe. Well-funded police, fire, first responders and essential employees. 

The Cairns District and Stadium Village are master planned and designed for tall buildings and walkability. In order to achieve that, in order to maintain our character and embrace quality growth, what's missing? Transit and transportation. That’s the key. Hopefully, when the mayor looks out her window 30 years from now, there’s going to be a bridge that connects the FrontRunner to Sandy. There’s going to be another interchange off the freeway between 106th South and 90th South. 

And it’s my hope that our beautiful mountain view that you can see from City Hall, the view corridor, will also be preserved. And Dimple Dell Park, which is at the heart of our city, will remain as a place of natural refuge and wilderness. Kids 50 years from now will be racing down the hill, tearing up the wood chip trail. They’re running with their dogs and riding their horses just like they are today.