Bob Bernick’s Notebook: Salt Lake City, Welcome Your New Criminal Neighbors

So, a special Utah legislative committee, controlled by Republicans, spent four years studying where to move the Utah State Prison, with the state to spend more than half a billion dollars on rebuilding it, and came up with the decision Tuesday to move the prison from southern Salt Lake County to northern Salt Lake County, put it in one of the few Democratic House and Senate districts, on unstable, wet soils that could require foundation stabilization pilings more than 10 stories deep.

Is that about right?

Yep, says Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton, co-chair of the Prison Relocation Commission, which voted 7-0 – with the two Democrats in agreement – to relocate the prison on several hundred acres now owned by Kennecott Copper west and south of the International Airport, just across I-80.

Over 50 years of operating the new prison, legislative budget staffers and paid prison relocation consultants said, Utah should save more than $300 million in maintenance, travel, utility and saved staff time with the Salt Lake site than on the other three finalists – a site in Grantsville, Tooele County, near the Walmart distribution center, and in Fairfield and Eagle Mountain in northwestern Utah County.

   I’m not saying the Salt Lake City site isn’t the best.

    Certainly by the numbers generated by legislative staffers and the consultants presented Tuesday afternoon, it well may be the most favorable site.

   Still, it comes in a Democratic city, in Democratic legislative districts and not very far away – like a 10-minute freeway drive – from high population areas.

   But, said several of the consultants, if the Salt Lake City International Airport can go through a billion-dollar-plus rebuilding project on soils about the same as the new prison, and if the industrial-zoned area will never see many residents, and the pick is nearer courts, county jails, medical facilities, volunteers and prison employees – well, Salt Lake City welcome your new criminal neighbors.

   Salt Lake Mayor Ralph Becker, fighting a difficult re-election campaign this year, is already talking about suing the state in an attempt to stop the now officially recommended site.

   But a city lawsuit would likely fail – the state has the power to override any city zoning, even though the site is currently zoned industrial, and Kennecott is a willing land-seller.

   And any legal challenges would just cost the city and state more money – taxpayer money.

   So perhaps Becker can hold out on any lawsuit decision until after the November elections.

   If he wins, this likely would be his last term, so maybe he can talk tough but do little to cost everyone more money.

   But I must say, listening to the questions asked Tuesday, and the very-Salt-Lake-site favorable numbers generated by the Legislature’s own budget office (good people there, but certainly playing to their bosses in this case), the die was cast.

   In fact, in a press conference after the commission vote, several members said they had actually made up their minds about the Salt Lake site several months ago – after onsite visits and getting the lay of land – literally.

Now GOP Gov. Gary Herbert will call a special legislative session – maybe as soon as next week – where a concurrent resolution will be introduced in the House formally naming the Salt Lake site, passed, and then move on to the Senate, where it will pass again.

Everyone expects the site to be approved, by lawmakers and Herbert.

And, barring any legal holdups, more soil tests will take place, designs will be drawn up and approved, and as with any new state construction, the Division of Facilities Construction and Management will oversee what will be the largest building project in state history.

Preliminary construction estimates put the new prison at $550 million, with more than $60 million coming in SLC site work – those 10-story deep footings, pilings or whatever.

For the record, Legislative budgeters and consultants say a 50-year operating estimates put each of the four sites here:

  • Salt Lake, $577 million.
  • Grantsville, $810 million.
  • Eagle Mountain, $825 million.
  • Fairfield, $855 million.

So, while it might cost $60 million more to build on the swamp-land or even $80 million more – future soils testing will decide final costs — overall through reduced transportation for employees, volunteers and such; reduced utility costs; and a greater population to draw from for employees, inmate treatment specialists, etc.; in the long, long run it will be cheaper, and a better taxpayer buy, to build on salty Salt Lake land.

Let’s just hope the waters don’t rise – as in the level of the Great Salt Lake.

Yes, the I-80 freeway blocks the lake, but as one of the consultants told the commission, you don’t want your prison settling down in the soil.

Here is the state site where you can learn more about the prison relocation commission’s work, with a whole lot of data, estimates, and charts.

And even if Republican state bosses may have given the shaft — er, prison – to Democratic Salt Lake City, city fathers shouldn’t feel too bad.

In the last legislative session – perhaps knowing where this may all end up – the Legislature passed a law that will allow the eventual new-prison city/county to raise their sales tax slightly, to help pay for any “negative” impacts the new prison may have.

All city-shoppers – whether city residents or visiting buyers – will pay that higher sales tax, if it is ultimately imposed.

In the meantime, the old 700-acre Draper prison site will become a “world-class” hi-tech business/research development, bringing in millions and millions of new tax dollars – some of which, hopefully, can be spent in the state corrections budget to provide new facility operating revenue and effective inmate rehabilitation programs, to make the state a safer, more prosperous, place.

Soon Herbert and legislators will move on to another emotional issue – Medicaid expansion.

And Salt Lake City officials will consider how to provide water, sewer, fire and police protection to a bigger, safer, better-operating prison.