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John Florez: Relocating Utah State Prison is not in public's interest

Published: Saturday, June 23 2012 12:44 a.m. MDT

A group is drafting proposals to relocate the Utah State Prison from Draper Wednesday, June 13, 2012.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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How can penny-pinching legislators try to make welfare mothers volunteer as a way to pay back for receiving public assistance, yet pass legislation that could end up subsidizing private developers leaving taxpayers with a $460 million bill?

Last legislative session, lawmakers passed HB445 "to relocate the state prison to another suitable location in the state in order to allow private development of the land on which the state prison is presently located." There is no public interest mentioned in justification for the bill.

Yet, taxpayers could be stuck helping to pay an estimated $460 million for moving the state prison in Draper to another location. That's according to one study prepared in October 2005 for the state Division of Facilities Construction and Management, or DFCM. That's only one of several studies the state paid for regarding relocation of the state prison, and all of them concluded that it would be too costly to move.

Legislation was also passed to establish a Prison Relocation and Development Authority committee to invite proposals regarding "the fulfillment of a prison relocation project." Since January, the committee — made up of lawmakers, Draper and Tooele officials and executive staff — has met five times. Rather than taking the time to review past studies to any great degree, they discussed where to relocate the Draper prison and made a visit to the Rush Valley area, a potential site.

One would have thought they would have first established principles that would guide them in carrying out their charge. However, guiding principles were only mentioned for five minutes at the end of the meeting last week.

The last meeting focused on how best to relocate the Draper prison in a rural area, including the negative and positive aspects — city tax benefits; transportation of prisoners to hospitals and courts; and emergency cases. Some did not see public safety as a major problem in transporting prisoners. Seemingly forgotten was the death of Stephen Anderson, a corrections officer shot by a prisoner while at the University Hospital.

It seems a waste of tax dollars for the committee to not take the time to review the expensive past studies that considered the costs of relocation, transportation, court appearances, prison guard training, displacement, family visits and loss of volunteer help to name a few.

The committee discussed the benefits of economic development for the Draper site. Sen. Scott Jenkins, the spokesperson for the committee, was convinced moving the prison was a good idea. One member expressed concern about limiting the cost to taxpayers, but it was quickly glossed over.

The key question was asked in an earlier meeting by Spence Eccles, the executive director at the Governor's Office of Economic Development, "How much is it going to cost the state?"

Lawmakers are entrusted with making policy that promotes the public welfare, rather than private interests. To do otherwise seems irresponsible and loses the public's trust. Most disturbing in the drafting of the legislation is the governor's exclusion from making the decision in approving the proposal to relocate the prison.

The governor's spokeswoman has said, before the governor could support relocating the prison, "Any proposal must be open, clearly feasible, aligned with established process and beneficial to Utah's taxpayers. … if this is the time to relocate the prison, we are going to do it right, and no matter what proposals come forth, the ultimate litmus test is whether it is in taxpayers' best interest."

It seems the legislation to move the prison was crafted to serve private parties rather than the public's interest. Therefore, how can lawmakers justify spending taxpayers' dollars? The governor's statement to support the prison relocation only if it does "optimize the taxpayers' dollars" may be put to the test.

A Utah native, John Florez has been on the staff of Sen. Orrin Hatch, served as former Utah Industrial Commissioner and filled White House appointments, including Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor and Commission on Hispanic Education. Email him at jdflorez@comcast.net.

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