The Tooele County Commissioners passed a resolution last Tuesday that declares our county’s interest in possibly becoming the new home for the Utah State Prison. Their action is a display of good and skillful statesmanship.
Ever since Gov. Gary Herbert announced his support to move the prison during his State of the State address last month, the project has triggered a lot of talk at the 45-day Utah General Session, which ends on March 14. To make sure Tooele County doesn’t get pushed aside by other counties vying for the prison, the commissioners had to issue an official expression of support to the governor and Utah.
The carefully crafted document doesn’t offer carte blanche access to the county’s land and people. It merely says the commission supports the concept of relocating the prison to Tooele County, and desires to be a “participant in the selection process.” Commenting on the resolution’s passage, Commissioner Jerry Hurst said, “This puts us in standing when and if we decide we want to be looked at as a site. We need to look at the pros and cons, including jobs, revenue coming into the county, and ancillary business that may locate around the prison.”
Indeed, now that we’ve made our interest in the project clear, it’s time to pause, step out of the legislature’s intoxicating vibe that can cloud sound judgment, and weigh those pros and cons — thoroughly. We have to decide if the state prison is something we really need. But more importantly, we must ask ourselves, is it something we truly want?
Because questions, a lot of them, have yet to be asked and answered about what such a move could mean to our county. Some have already been raised by local officials and our legislative representatives at recent caucus meetings at the state capitol. Predictably, one of the biggest questions has to do with possible short and long-term economic impacts the prison may impose on county taxpayers. Another involves public safety concerns.
Research and examination of the project by local leaders must proceed with absolute transparency. Yet, after the cost/benefit analysis has been performed, and fears have been addressed, the job of determining whether or not the prison is welcome here is far from done. The next step is plenty of time and room for public hearings and dialogue. Residents need and must have say. If the entire proposal turns contentious and divides the Tooele County community, then put it to a vote in a binding referendum.
Moving the Utah State Prison to our county could be a good thing for a variety of reasons. But it could also be something that we ultimately regret. And such regret would not pass quickly. The current prison at Draper was built in 1951. The one before that was built at today’s Sugar House Park in 1855. If the prison comes here, it will be for a long, long time. Let’s make sure it’s a time that serves our community well.
Furthermore, let’s not forget who ultimately benefits from relocating the prison. The governor supports the move to make the prison’s 700-acre site available for lucrative economic development — specifically for high tech industries. If such business development occurs there, the property taxes raised may be substantial for Salt Lake County. State prisons don’t pay property taxes — they spend them. This fact shouldn’t be ignored while local leaders and residents decide if bringing the prison here is in everyone’s best interest.