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Controlling costs for new state prison could mean fewer beds

FILE"” Workers repair a soft spot in the temporary haul road for the new prison in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017.
FILE"” Workers repair a soft spot in the temporary haul road for the new prison in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017.
Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Just what the $650 million total price tag for a new state prison west of the Salt Lake City International Airport will buy was up for discussion Friday by the Legislature's Prison Development Commission.

Designers may not be able fit 4,000 beds into the new prison and have ruled out leaving room for expansion within the facility's walls, said Jim Russell, director of the state Division of Facilities Construction and Management.

"Our priorities are quality, safety and security," Russell told the commission, describing the need to scale back the square footage of the prison set to be completed in November 2020 to control costs. "Those things will not be sacrificed at all."

It should be clear by mid-June what impact the adjustments on the design will have on the number of beds, he said, assuring the commission that "sacrificing beds will be the last resort."

The commission's co-chairmen, Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, and House Majority Leader Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, both raised concerns about shrinking the size of the facility that will replace the Utah State Prison at Point of the Mountain in Draper.

The state would be "very wise" to keep the facility at 4,000 beds, Stevenson said.

"If it becomes a matter of money, then we need to seriously look at that," he said, citing the state's increasing population. "I think we just need to be prepared for the growth that is coming."

Wilson wanted reassurances the new prison could be expanded "down the road" if 4,000 beds turn out not to be enough in the future.

"We don't ever want to build more beds," Wilson said, adding, however, that it would be naive to think that isn't a "distinct probability."

Russell said earlier plans to leave room within the facility's walls for another 2,000 beds have been scrapped because it was "more expensive and less safe" to add more capacity that way.

While Russell said there is space outside the walls available for an expansion, he suggested that if more beds are eventually needed, the state may want to consider looking for a separate location.

"Four thousand is a lot to manage," Russell said. "Operationally, do you need to move it somewhere else?"

Salt Lake City was selected for the massive project after a yearslong process. The new prison, expected to cost $550 million plus an additional $100 million in infrastructure expenses, is on schedule.

But John Kemp, program director for the project, said even though the prison is expected to be ready to turn over to the state Department of Corrections as planned in November 2020, it will take at least six months before it's up and running.

Kemp also said there will be a lot of construction activity on the site starting this fall, when work gets underway on the foundation pads needed to secure the buildings to the swampy soil in the area.

The entire 121-acre prison site has to be raised about 2 feet, he said. A temporary road to haul in fill materials is nearly done, and the North Temple frontage road is being widened between 7200 West and 8000 West to make room for the trucks.

Although plans for how different types of inmate housing would be laid out were distributed at Friday's meeting, architect Kevin Miller said renderings of what the prison exterior would look like won't be ready until the budget is clearer.

"How much we have to spend on 'pretty' is a little bit up in the air," Miller said.

Bonding for the prison project was also on the commission agenda. Lawmakers initially put up $80 million in cash and authorized $470 million in bonding capacity in 2015, then added another $100 million to that total in the 2017 Legislature.

Russell said $23 million of the cash amount has been spent on the project so far, and he'd like to bond for $240 million in July. But commission members questioned whether that much was needed right away.

State Treasurer David Damschen said he was looking to bond for about six months of costs instead, noting that a second bond could be sought in January. Lawmakers last session also approved bonding for $1 billion over four years for road projects.