TOPEKA — A legislative audit released Monday claims the Kansas Department of Corrections missed “key variables” and relied on “inconsistent assumptions” that tended to favor a more expensive method of replacing the state’s largest and oldest prison.
According to the audit, the Department of Corrections underestimated the cost of rebuilding Lansing Correctional Facility through a lease-purchase agreement, a contract that allows a private company to build the prison and then lease it back to the state until the state purchases it. That option likely would be scrapped because of the results of the audit, said J.R. Claeys, a Salina Republican and chair of the transportation and public safety budget committee.
The audit says a preliminary estimate from KDOC placed the project cost at $140 million through 20 years. The total cost predicted by KDOC was $155 million, but the audit report contends it would cost $206 million. Auditors found the best option would be for the state to issue bonds to build the prison and contract with a company for its maintenance.
“These results differ from KDOC’s preliminary estimates, which were missing key variables and used inconsistent assumptions that tended to favor a lease-purchase option,” the audit says.
KDOC is now in the process of receiving bids to build the prison in response to a request for proposals it issued in April, according to the audit. Bids are due Friday. KDOC Secretary Joe Norwood said in a letter in response to the audit that the department would accept auditors’ help picking a bidder to contract with.
The audit says the department failed to include in its cost estimates the final price it would pay to buy back the prison at the end of the lease, did not adjust prices over time, presented different construction costs based on the ownership arrangement and left out what auditors found to be the least expensive option. It said the least expensive option — building the prison with bond money and contracting its maintenance — would cost $178 million in 20 years.
KDOC did not dispute any of the findings of the audit, according to a summary of the report.
Rep. John Barker, an Abilene Republican and chair of the Legislative Post Audit committee, said he thought the Department of Corrections was receptive to the findings and that auditors found costs KDOC overlooked.
Rep. Dan Hawkins, R-Wichita, said he thought the department or administration had been leaning toward a lease-purchase option.
In an email, KDOC spokesman Todd Fertig said the agency was “open to whichever funding option is best for the state.” He said the real cost of the project would not be known until the state gets bids from builders.
According to the audit, KDOC has claimed the project would not have a significant impact on the state’s budget.
The audit says the state could find savings by combining maximum- and medium-security prisoners into one building and reducing staff. Savings also could be realized with a more energy-efficient building than the ones now at Lansing, including one built in the 1860s.
Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley, D-Topeka, said he was concerned reduced staffing would lead to more disciplinary problems, like recent outbreaks at El Dorado Correctional Facility.
“That concerns me because we’ve seen what’s happened in El Dorado, where they’re understaffed. They’ve had to work double shifts, and we’ve had some real security problems down there among the inmates,” Hensley said.
Claeys, however, said Lansing already requires a higher level of staffing because of its age. A modern building, he said, would require staffing similar to that at El Dorado, which is currently understaffed. Rebuilding Lansing, Claeys said, would help prevent uprisings at overcrowded prisons like El Dorado Correctional Facility. He said the prison’s population has been rising without any new space given to inmates, and it faces severe staffing shortages.
“I think having Lansing rebuilt certainly alleviates some of the pressure on El Dorado,” Claeys said.
Claeys said he had a proposal for the coming legislative session to raise wages for correctional officers to help fill staffing shortages.
“We’re going to do something, and it should be a priority,” Barker said.
Claeys said the Legislature would go with a plan “that’s the least expensive for taxpayers and gets us the result of a modern, efficient prison facility at Lansing.”
He said a provision included in the budget lawmakers passed in June would ensure a plan for the prison gets approval from the Legislature.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.