The possible relocation of the Utah State Prison to Tooele County again took center stage during a caucus of local and state officials at Utah’s Capitol Tuesday.
They discussed strategies for selling the governor and legislature on choosing Tooele County as the preferred site for a new prison.
Rep. Doug Sagers, R-Tooele, told caucus attendees he recently attended a meeting with the governor, lieutenant governor, corrections officials and others during which the prison relocation was discussed.
“The governor was favorable to the idea of pursuing Tooele County as a location for the prison,” said Sagers. “He had no idea of the level of initiative and support for the prison among both city and county officials in Tooele County.”
He added that three sites have been mentioned as possible locations: Timpie, Five Mile Pass, and west of South Mountain.
Timpie may have an advantage over the other sites, according to Sagers.
“There was some discussion at the meeting that the prison needs to be within 40 miles of an airport to accept federal prisoners,” he said. “There is some uncertainty about whether Tooele Valley Airport qualifies.”
The Timpie exit on I-80 is 30 miles west of Salt Lake International Airport, noted Sagers.
Although early support for the relocation appears strong, some county officials asked for more information during the caucus about the prison and its impact on the community.
“I think it would be good for our citizens if we had more information,” said Tooele County Attorney Doug Hogan. “I have had some questions from the public about how the prison will released.”
Tooele County Treasurer Jeremy Walker asked for more information about potential costs the county may incur from hosting the prison.
“We need to know more about the amount of economic impact on the county,” he said. “Like more specifics on how the prison would generate revenue for the county, and how that revenue compares to potential increases in services the county would have to provide as a result of having the prison in the county.”
The current prison at Draper has a capacity for 4,500 prisoners, employs 2,000 people and has more than 1,000 volunteers. Also on Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement, and Criminal Justice committee met to review Senate Bill 72, which creates a 10-member commission to oversee the prison’s relocation, and future commercial development of the vacated property.
Sen. Scott Jenkins, R-Plain City, sponsor of SB 72, explained to the committee that the relocation and building of a new prison would cost between $500 million and $600 million. But over the course of 25 years the economic development of the former prison site would put $20 billion into the Utah economy and create 40,000 jobs.
According to Jenkins, relocation costs would largely be covered by savings in prison operations from a new modern facility, and the sale of the 700- acre site where the prison currently stands.
Furthermore, it is estimated a new prison can operate with 315 less employees than the current prison, resulting in a savings of $17 million to $20 million per year. The land sale should generate an additional $100 million to $140 million, he says.
SB 72 also allows the state to take up to 50 percent of the sales tax and property tax generated from the former prison property to help pay for the relocation of the prison and the development of the old prison property.
Yet, not everyone is convinced the prison move is a good idea.
“This is about making money for developers and taxpayers will get stuck with the costs,” said Lee Anne Walker, a Salt Lake City-based attorney. “The benefits of leaving the prison right where it is are that it is close to family, close to volunteers, close to a hospital and close to the kind of staff that can deal with their problems.”
Prison move discussions gained importance after Gov. Gary Herbert said he supported moving the facility during his State of the State address on Jan. 30. He backs the move to make way for expanding hightech industries that see the site as a prime location.
Tuesday’s caucus was the third time elected leaders from Tooele County, Tooele City and Grantsville City, along with representatives from Utah State University Tooele Regional Campus, and Tooele Applied Technology College, met to discuss the prison move and current legislation regarding the project.