Task force receives engineering report for WSP
By Chad Abshire
RAWLINS — An engineering report delayed by nearly three weeks was released late Thursday and the Legislative Task Force on Penal Facilities is scheduled to meet next month to figure out what to do next about the Wyoming State Penitentiary.
That meeting date comes four days after its deadline set by Gov. Matt Mead in March during the task force’s creation by Senate File 91.
Rep. Donald Burkhart, R-Rawlins, said Thursday before the report had been released that the task force hasn’t met for a while, citing the members would rather wait until Denver-based engineering firm Martin/Martin.
Now that the 284-page report is out, Burkhart said a meeting has been tentatively scheduled Oct. 5 in Rawlins. The location of the meeting has not yet been decided. The report, he said, is available for viewing by the public by contacting the Legislative Service Office.
Even with the report now in-hand, Burkhart said “time is running short.”
Despite being less than two weeks from deadline, Burkhart said he was confident the task force would “be able to make a good decision.”
“We understand we need to make decision. We’re not going to just walk in and say, ‘here are five or six options, pick one.’ The task force will say here is the option we’ve selected, based on a whole lot of things.”
He said the meeting should result in task force members deciding what step to take regarding the Pen. Even with a meeting after the deadline, Burkhart said that shouldn’t result in disarray.
“We knew there would be a little bit of a delay,” he said. “Five days, considering the speed at which this is working, is no big deal. This has no impact on the process at all.”
Report in hand
“The entire task force has to vote on it,” he said of the engineering report. “What we’ve given (Martin/Martin), as for directions, is to give us cost benefits and cost-risk analysis on various options.”
Burkhart said the task force explicitly told Martin/Martin to not offer an opinion as “it’ll be up to the Legislature and governor to ultimately make a decision on how to fund it.”
The cost of fixing the Wyoming State Penitentiary varies and depends on what option the task force ultimately chooses to send to the Joint Appropriations Committee, Joint Judiciary Committee and Gov. Matt Mead.
In early July, the Task Force authorized hiring Martin/Martin at a cost of $133,000 to prepare a study by Aug. 30 to consider the following options:
- Option 1: Repair the existing facility.
- Option 2: Replace the entire facility on an alternate site as discussed with the task force.
- Option 3: Replace south housing A-C on alternate site, repair balance of South Facility. Replacement includes new small units for admin, library, visitation, chapel and warehouse functions.
- Option 4: Replace south housing A-H on alternate site and repair existing CPF and K unit. Replacement includes new small units for admin, library, visitation, chapel and warehouse functions.
Figures hover around $170 million for building an entirely new facility while repair costs are estimated at around $80 million.
As for getting someone to perform the work, Burkhart said “the cost of construction work has come down in the last few months due to competition. They want the contract.”
Which option to choose?
Burkhart said he was leaning towards replacing the entire prison, but that brings the question of where is another one built.
He compared the 15-year-old Pen to a 15-year-old truck that needed work done.
“You either put work into fixing the transmission and engine or is it time to consider buying new?” Burkhart said. “I’m leaning towards it’s time to consider buying new.”
He’s not alone. In late August, Mead said he was on that side too.
"I'm very reluctant to spend $80 million repairing a prison that probably should not have been built in that place in the first instance," Mead said at a news conference about the declining state budget.
Constructing a new prison would result in a completely new complex and not a “piecemealed” solution, Burkhart said. He added that “piecemealing” would likely be a more expensive option as “you never know what the future holds. You’re better off keeping everything together.”
But finding a location to build a maximum security prison in Rawlins isn’t easy.
“State geologists recommend against building it any place in the county south of Interstate 80,” he said. “They also couldn’t recommend going much east of 789 or very west of it. That leaves a narrow band” to the north of Rawlins.
But that narrow band “pretty much rests on bedrock or has very good soils for construction,” Burkhart said.
Then comes the issue of even more funding. While constructing a new prison carries roughly a $170 million price tag, the state would have to purchase land. And even if it is state land, it still has to be purchased “because state land is set up to generate money for the state,” Burkhart said.
If built on BLM land, the state could arrange for a swap, Burkhart said, but would “still, in effect, be buying it.” However, swapping land “is a net gain for the state,” he said.
Other potential lands include federal land, private land or even lands owned by Anadarko. Of the latter, Burkhart said they were “extremely good to work with and may be interested in selling land.”
Next is the setting of the prison. Burkhart said there would be “a lot of things to consider, including the community.”
“If we do decide to build new, we don’t want it to sit in or near a residential area or be visible from a school,” he said.
Not only that, but Burkhart said the Wyoming Department of Corrections wants a half-mile radius around a new prison of open space with no other buildings or construction “mainly for security reasons.”
While Burkhart said the DOC “could get by with a quarter-mile, they definitely want a buffer zone.”
Not getting smaller
Burkhart said statements from Mead showcase a preference that the Pen “stays in Rawlins and stays in its current form.”
“That doesn’t mean a south facility; that means we aren’t splitting the Pen up,” he said. “We’re not moving it anywhere. We’re not moving part of it anywhere.”
There had been some rumblings from the public that while the prison has to stay here as per state statute, that didn’t mean it had to remain in its current form.
But Burkhart said that’s exactly what the task force intends to do — keep the Pen in its current form here in Rawlins.
“We’ve already built a minimum security prison,” he said. “The max stays in Rawlins as it is. We’re looking at the Pen staying the same as it is, size wise.”
Who makes the decision?
The task force is made up of five state senators and five state representatives, many of whom have an engineering background, as well as members of the public.
Only one legislative member hails from Carbon County, that being Burkhart. He’s joined by James Byrd, D-Laramie; Dan Laursen, R-Park; David Miller, R-Fremont; and Brown, who serves as chairman of the House members.
The Senate members are chaired by Bruce Burns, R-Sheridan. Other members include Eli Bebout, R-Fremont; John Hastert, D-Sweetwater; Stephan Pappas, R-Laramie; and Jeff Wasserburger, R-Campbell/Converse.
House members were chosen by Kermit Brown, the House speaker, while Senate members were selected by Senate President Phil Nicholas, R-Albany.
Members of the public include Sinclair Police Chief Jeff Sanders, Bank of Commerce President Copper France and Todd Peterson, Regional President of Pinnacle Bank in Torrington.