Prison relocation bill advances despite concerns about costs

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 27 2013 5:49 p.m. MST

A committee created by the 2011 Legislature recommended last month to relocate the state prison to "allow private development of the land on which the state prison is presently located."

Brian Nicholson, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — A proposal to create a board to oversee the possible relocation of the 62-year-old Utah State Prison took a step forward despite concerns about financing the massive project.

Some lawmakers also continue to question the makeup of what would be called the Prison Land Management Authority, which would oversee selecting a site for and building a new prison, as well redevelopment of the current prison property.

"When we step out on this ice, I want to see how deep the water is," said Sen. Lyle Hillyard, adding he wonders how the state would handle the proposed financing options falling $100 million short.

The Logan Republican said 33 years in the Legislature tells him the estimated $17 million to $20 million in annual savings from operating a new prison won't happen.

"That has never worked out" on projects that tried that in the past, he said. "I don't think it's realistic."

Still, Hillyard joined four other Republicans on the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee voting Wednesday to advance SB72, though he added he might change his mind on the Senate floor. The two Democrats on the committee opposed the bill.

Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, said he also might vote against the bill on the floor because he doesn't like the composition of the 11-member oversight board, eight of whom would be appointed by the governor.

"That's too much decision-making authority coming from the governor's office," Urquhart said. "I think this just ends up as the governor's committee and the other three are along for the ride."

The bill currently calls for an 11-member Prison Land Management Authority with two subcommittees — one with seven members to oversee relocating and building a new prison, and the other with nine members to manage development of the 690-acre prison property.

Sen. Pat Jones, D-Salt Lake City, said she'd "love" to move the prison but worries about the financing. She also said four representatives on the board from the real estate and construction industries is too many.

"That's a heavy voice," Jones said.

The cost for moving and building a new prison is estimated at $550 million to $600 million. Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, said at least two-thirds of the cost would be covered in the savings from operating a state-of-the-art prison and the sale of the current property.

The Utah Department of Corrections has the ability to scuttle the project if the cost savings can't be realized, Jenkins said.

Proponents of the project see the current prison site being developed as a technology center. They say it would bring $20 billion in economic development to the state along with 30,000 to 40,000 jobs.

Opponents say it would allow land developers to make big bucks, while leave taxpayers holding the bag when the economic returns don't materialize.

Steve Erickson, of the Citizens Education Project, said the public perceives the project as a "freight train headed down the track."

"Back up the train. Go slow on this. There's no hurry," Erickson said.

The longtime community activist also cautioned lawmakers against privatizing the state's prison system, which is a possibility should the bill pass the Legislature. The oversight committee would be allowed to seek requests for proposals from private companies, according to the bill. The last time the state considered privatization ended in a "fiasco" that cost $2 million, he said.

Erickson suggested the state hire an independent consultant to see if the project is feasible. But it "seems the committee already has its marching orders to move the prison."

Jenkins said the prison land board would have to hit certain benchmarks as it studies moving the prison and developing the property. Lawmakers and the governor would have to approve any of its recommendations.

"The Legislature has to be involved when we're talking about this much money," Jenkins said.

Rural counties, many of which contract with the corrections department to house state inmates, also want a say in the process. They fear a new prison would bite into that revenue. But they also see a chance for the state to build a smaller central prison while housing more inmates in the counties.

"We see this as a real opportunity for looking at options for increased contracting with counties," said Rep. Spencer Cox, R-Fairview, whose district includes Sanpete and Juab counties.

E-mail: romboy@desnews.com

Twitter: dennisromboy

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