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Lawmakers worry costs 'out of control' as prison project nears $700 million

Projected price tag rises again, approaches $700 million

Workers repair a soft spot in the temporary haul road for the new prison in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2017.
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

SALT LAKE CITY — Lawmakers on Wednesday weren't happy to hear that budget estimates for new Utah State Prison project have again risen — this time from $650 million to nearly $700 million.

One legislator on the Infrastructure and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee worried the project is turning into a "bottomless pit of funds" while another wondered how much longer costs were going to "escalate out of control."

But state administrators took issue with the characterization the project is "out of control," expressing frustrations that even though some estimates put costs of the project at as high as $860 million, they've been told to keep the budget at $650 million.

And on top of that, the project isn't on track to get the 4,000 beds originally hoped for. In order to keep costs low, the most the new prison will be able to house is 3,600 beds, said Jim Russell, director of the state Division of Facilities Construction and Management.

Fears that the new prison's bed count would shrink due to costs were raised in late 2016 by Rollin Cook, executive director of the Utah Department of Corrections. Last April, Russell told members of the Legislature's Prison Development Commission that "sacrificing beds will be the last resort."

But even after reducing bed count by 400 and a lot of "hard work" to find as many "efficiencies" as possible, Russell said Wednesday he and his team are hard-pressed to reduce cost projections any lower than $692.5 million.

"We don't see there's any more," Russell told the appropriations subcommittee during an update on the project.

"There's been a lot of work that's gone into trying to cut costs everywhere we can — but we cannot sacrifice on the safety of the inmates, employees, security, and it's got to meet the programmatic needs of the Department of Corrections," he added.

Russell said he's not officially requesting additional funds this year, but he may come back next year after bid packages are put together. The first detention facility — a maximum security building for men — is slated to be completed in June 2020, while substantial completion of the entire facility is expected for April 2021, Russell said.

Lawmakers raised concerns about cost — but also the impact of building a 3,600-bed prison while Utah's population continues to grow. Russell said there is room to expand the prison later, but that, too, will cost more money.

"If this continues to escalate out of control, how far is it going to escalate until we get really a grip on it and say, 'No, enough is enough, we can only build this,'" asked Sen. David Buxton, R-Roy.

Rep. Marie Poulson, D-Salt Lake City, noted that the prison relocation from Draper wasn't exactly "popular" with her constituents, and she asked Russell how he could assure her that the project won't require a "bottomless pit of funds."

"I think it's a worry to all of us that this will be a project that remains out of control as far as the costs go," Poulson said.

Poulson also noted that initial costs estimates were much lower.

Early on, construction costs were estimated to be about $439 million and $20 million for site purchase and development, according to a 2014 master plan. Later, lawmakers budgeted $550 million for the prison itself, with the expectation that $100 million would be needed for infrastructure. Last year, the Legislature approved a $100 million bond for roads and utilities, bringing the project to $650 million.

Tani Downing, executive director of Utah Department of Administrative Services, said state facilities and construction staff have worked with contractors and gone "line by line" and challenged estimates in an effort to get cost projections down to $650 million, but $692 million is the lowest they can get.

"That's still an estimate," Downing warned. "We haven't gone out to market and done bids so we don't know if we've forced these two big contractors to lower their estimates. (When) go out to the market, maybe it's going to come in at $750 million."

Downing reminded lawmakers that early on, one estimate was as high as $860 million. Yet when the Legislature made the decision to move forward, "we were told to build it at $650 million," she said.

Because of that, Downing said her team is trying its best to meet the "wish list" of the Legislature and corrections needs while keeping the project on-budget.

"These estimates, programming, everything should have happened before the Legislature funded it so we can have better ideas and we could be more certain of the cost," Downing said. "We're doing the best we can."