The painstaking process outlined by a consultant hired to help the Prison Relocation Authority and Development Committee decide if, when and how to relocate the state’s main prison facility drew quick reactions — one polite, the other heated — from two lawmakers Wednesday.
Brad Sassatelli, project director for MGT of America, told the board his firm would have a preliminary feasibility report ready at the end of January but projected that, if a decision is made to move the Utah State Prison, a contract would not be awarded until spring 2015.
An ideal business site?
At the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, moving the Utah State Prison to free its 700-acre site for economic development would make a whole lot of sense for the state.
As he told the first Prison Relocation and Development Authority board, GOED Director Spencer Eccles reiterated Wednesday that the prison sits squarely in a thriving high-tech corridor with unmatched access to major transportation routes. Companies such as Ebay, Adope, Merit Medical, IM Flash Technologies, Ultradent and others already employ thousands in the area, providing good jobs and incomes, and “all trend lines are pointing up” for more growth in Utah’s high-tech and life science sectors, Eccles said. Currently, Utah is ranked 9th in the nation for high-tech and 5th in life science job growth rates, Eccles said.
High-tech and life science businesses are “really concerned” about the environment around them and Eccles said that in his opinion, “just on aesthetics alone,” the prison has a negative effect on property values.
Eccles, who served on the first PRADA board, estimated last year that redeveloping the prison site could translate into 40,000 jobs and $20 billion in tax revenue over a 25-year period.
The first PRADA board suggested that tax increment funding could help cover costs of moving the prison and redeveloping the site, but Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams asked Wednesday whether that would amount to “double spending” and hamstring the ability of counties and cities to use property tax rebates to attract new businesses. Eccles said that is one of the “big idea” questions still to be resolved as part of looking at best use of the property.
— Brooke Adams
"This is a very aggressive schedule we’ve laid out for the state to move forward with," Sassatelli said.
But not according to Rep. Eric K. Hutchings, R-Kearns.
After listening to Sassatelli’s broad overview of process steps and timetables, Hutchings said he could have learned the same information by flipping through a copy of Architectural Digest.
"So far, I haven’t really learned anything today that you didn’t share when we sat down to hire you," Hutchings said, adding: "April 2015 ain’t going to work."
That’s because a bid award would come after that year’s legislative session, thus pushing project funding into 2016.
"We hired you to get the process moving quickly," Hutchings said. "At what point will we get definitive information? ... We need some answers. I don’t want to be offensive, but we have been at this for an awfully long time."
Rep. Brad R. Wilson, R-Kaysville and vice chairman of the Legislature’s executive appropriations committee, said much the same thing.
"The tricky part for us as a Legislature is, if it impacts any budgeting decisions we make, from what I’m seeing, we won’t know that until April 2015."
Wilson also said that while Gov. Gary Herbert’s budget recommendation includes $36 million to add high-security beds at the Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison — which Herbert said is necessary to handle prison population growth regardless of what decisions PRADA makes — the proposal may be a tough sell with lawmakers.
"There are a lot of people in the Legislature who need to be convinced that now is the right time" to expand Gunnison, said Wilson, who said he has heard from many colleagues who have questions about that proposal.
Wilson said there is "a lot of concern" that an expansion at Gunnison would jeopardize relocation of the Utah State Prison or building a new facility.
After the meeting, Wilson said that "we need more information about why Gunnison is the next logical step in the process before we invest tens of thousands of dollars in that. I don’t understand the need well enough to make the decision yet. If we don’t need Gunnison now — which we may — is there a better use of that money for addressing needs of the Department of Corrections."
The Gunnison facility opened in 1990 and was intended to eventually house 2,100 inmates. It has been expanded four times and currently has 1,600 medium and minimum security inmates.
In 2008, lawmakers earmarked $54 million to add a 192-bed maximum security unit and a 288-bed medium security unit in Gunnison, but the money was pulled back due to the Great Recession. Subsequent attempts to get lawmakers to approve funding for the 192-bed unit have failed, most recently in the last session.
Lane Summerhays, PRADA chairman, told Sassatelli that MGT will have to shorten its timeline to ensure the committee has a "finished RFP [request for proposals]" for a main prison facility to present to lawmakers in January 2015.
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