SALT LAKE CITY — Legislative leaders expressed frustration Tuesday that the state's prison relocation committee has put the brakes on plans to seek bids on a new facility before the start of the 2014 Legislature.
"I'm really disappointed. I thought the Legislature was pretty clear," House Majority Leader Brad Dee, R-Odgen, said during a meeting of the Legislature's Executive Appropriations Committee.
Dee said he expected a request for bids would have been issued by now to take advantage of what he called a rapidly closing "window of opportunity" to consider moving the decades-old Utah State Prison in Draper.
But last month, members of the Prison Relocation and Development Authority voted unanimously to postpone asking for bids on building a new prison somewhere in the state.
No decision has been made by the authority about whether the prison should be relocated from the nearly 700-acre Point of the Mountain site, freeing the prime property up for development.
With construction costs and interest rates rising, Senate Majority Whip Stuart Adams, R-Layton, said the state is missing an opportunity by not going forward with the bidding process while the move is being debated.
Adams pointed out the bids would not have to be accepted by the state.
House Majority Whip Greg Hughes, R-Draper, an early supporter of looking at relocation, said the state could have chosen to surplus the site in just six months but instead established the authority so the decision would be more transparent.
Hughes said the purpose of creating the authority nearly three years ago was to "change people's hearts and minds" about the timeliness and practicality of relocating the prison.
Now, he said, he's worried that some people are suggesting the process is moving too quickly.
"We have been so open and so transparent and discussed this so long, and we've allowed the narrative that three years is hasty to somehow push this so far along that we may never come to a conclusion," Hughes said.
Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, who serves on the authority, said he shared the concerns and estimated the cost of upgrading the Draper prison over the next decade at between $100 million to $200 million.
Wilson, the Legislature's House budget vice chairman, said a request for bids on the project was ready to go but failed to get the required signature of Gov. Gary Herbert.
Now, Wilson said, the authority intends to have a preliminary master plan for the project done by January, with a final plan completed by June. Bids for a new prison would not be sought until October 2014 and not awarded until May 2015.
Authority Chairman Lane Summerhays told the committee he hopes to have recommendations based on the preliminary master plan for lawmakers to consider next session.
Summerhays said those recommendations would likely include expanding the state prison in Gunnison, as well as contracts with county jails to house inmates. But lawmakers will have to wait until the 2015 Legislature to deal with a new prison.
Senate Minority Whip Karen Mayne, D-West Valley City, said she was glad the process has been slowed because of the lasting impact of a move on prison employees and others.
"I'm watching you because many of the people who live in my area work there," Mayne said, describing relocating the prison as much more than just constructing a new facility. "I appreciate you taking a breath."
Wilson said while he didn't want to minimize the disruption a move would have on employees, the state also has an obligation to inmates, who would benefit from a new, state-of-the-art prison.
The authority has spent about half of the $1.1 million allocated to study a move, much of it on a consultant hired to develop a master plan for housing inmates in the state. An appraisal of the Draper prison site is also underway.