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SALT LAKE CITY — A state lawmaker is calling for an audit of what he labeled an "exorbitant" estimate of the economic benefits of moving the Utah State Prison from Draper.
"I just can't believe the numbers they're tossing around. I think we need some real numbers," Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville, said Thursday of the projected $1.8 billion annual "total output" from fully developing the prison site.
Nelson said he intends to ask the Legislative Audit Subcommittee, made up of House and Senate leaders, to audit the numbers provided last year by the consultants hired to produce a master plan for relocating the prison, MGT America.
The same report said that state and local tax revenues "associated with this full development" of the nearly 700-acre site located at Point of the Mountain would add up to $94.6 million annually.
"They just sound exorbitant to me," Nelson said. "They're big numbers. If it was that easy to produce 10 percent of our state budget from a 700-acre parcel in Salt Lake County, we would have done that a long time ago."
He also wants a closer look at the costs of renovating the aging prison so lawmakers can compare the pluses and minuses of keeping it in Draper with moving the facility to one of five locations being considered.
Those are in Eagle Mountain and Fairfield in Utah County; near Salt Lake City International Airport in Salt Lake County; and in and near Grantsville in Tooele County.
The Legislature's Prison Relocation Commission, which identified the five potential sites earlier this year, is expected to make a recommendation this summer that lawmakers will consider in a special session.
They just sound exorbitant to me. They're big numbers. If it was that easy to produce 10 percent of our state budget from a 700-acre parcel in Salt Lake County, we would have done that a long time ago.
–Rep. Merrill Nelson, R-Grantsville
House Minority Leader Brian King, one of the four members of the audit subcommittee, said even though lawmakers voted in 2014 to support moving the prison, there's public support now for taking a second look.
"This is a big decision, and I want to make sure we get it right. If we have to delay this for six months to make sure the study looks at Draper, I'm OK with that," the Salt Lake City Democrat said.
Another member of the audit subcommittee, Senate President Wayne Niederhauser, R-Sandy, said there may already be enough information gathered about the Draper site to compile the type of comparison Nelson wants.
"My guess is that has been done in detail already. If not, let's do it," Niederhauser said. "If we think the reports are flawed or something like that, that might require an independent look at things."
The Senate president said he had already asked that information on the prison sites be put together by the commission in advance of the special session so lawmakers can come prepared to take action.
"I wanted to know what the costs were and the alternatives were," Niederhauser said. He said Thursday that the option of keeping the prison in Draper "should be included as far as I'm concerned."
During the 2015 Legislature, Nelson tried to run a bill that would have required the commission to consider rebuilding the state prison on the Draper site. But his bill was held, never assigned to a committee for a hearing.
Nelson said the bill already had more than a dozen co-sponsors when he was asked by legislative leadership to stop soliciting support. House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, has long supported moving the prison.
"I just hope leadership does not view this as a rebellion in the ranks," Nelson said of efforts to stop the prison move.
Another GOP House member, Rep. Fred Cox of West Valley City, is helping opponents of the move start a referendum and is drawing up plans for new facilities that can be built on-site before the old prison is torn down and excess land is sold.
While Nelson said opposition from his constituents to a prison sparked his interest in the issue, "residents throughout the state, not just Tooele County, are saying, 'Slow down. Let's take a look at this.'"
With community opposition to all of the proposed sites, Nelson said he hopes legislative leaders won't stand in the way of lawmakers being able to consider the Draper site.
"If leadership really believes in the numbers they're issuing, they should not object to verification and a side-by-side comparison so we can all be satisfied, as legislators and as citizens, that we're making the best decision for the state, that we're not just dumping the prison on someone else to make a buck in Draper," Nelson said.
Hughes cited the $1.8 billion economic impact figure in an interview with KSL Newsradio's Doug Wright on Thursday, saying "pretty soon you figure out we can't afford not to get serious about this."
The speaker said the relocation process has been "the most comprehensive, open public process" and called the new prison the largest capital facility project in the state's history.
He urged Utahns with concerns to attend one of the three upcoming open houses in Salt Lake City, Grantsville and Eagle Mountain and "come with your best questions. Come see what's going on."