- Associated Press - Thursday, February 12, 2015

IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) - Iowa Department of Corrections officials say they weren’t trying to mislead the public when they refused to acknowledge for months that the price tag for the state’s faulty new prison had risen to $166 million.

After deflecting questions since October, the department confirmed Wednesday that an often-cited $132 million cost for the empty Iowa State Penitentiary was not accurate.

The maximum-security prison for male offenders in Fort Madison was expected to open last year. But shortly before more than 500 inmates were to transfer from the old prison down the road, workers discovered that the geothermal heating and cooling system didn’t work as intended and needed to be replaced. As that problem was being fixed, they discovered that systems meant to control smoke in the event of fire were also faulty and required repairs. Both design problems have been blamed on an architectural firm that went bankrupt during the project.

Deputy Corrections Director Brad Hier had said the $132 million price tag remained accurate during an October interview - even though talking points prepared for Gov. Terry Branstad months earlier had put the cost at $165.5 million. Hier’s department and the Department of Administration then ignored inquiries asking for clarification of the new cost, which was first reported by The Associated Press in November based on public records. At one point, both agencies referred questions to the other.

After additional inquiries this week, Hier on Wednesday blamed miscommunication for the confusion over the cost and apologized for the months-long delay in clearing up questions about the two figures. He said $132 million reflected purely construction costs at the time of an October 2013 ribbon-cutting ceremony, but the price rises when management, design, equipment, furnishings and other project costs are included.

“There wasn’t any malicious intent or anything,” he said. “It’s just one of those semantics.”

He said the price tag includes an estimated $6.7 million to repair the geothermal heating and cooling system and $350,000 to redesign the smoke control system.

The department hasn’t set an official timetable, but inmates could move in as early as this spring or summer if the housing units can be brought up to the state fire code.

State lawyers are preparing for potentially long and complicated litigation in which they are expected to sue companies involved in overseeing the construction and face counter lawsuits involving payments.

Longtime Department of Corrections Director John Baldwin called the project the “most irritating and frustrating thing I’ve ever experienced in corrections” before retiring last month.

“It is, in my judgment, incompetence. We gave a lot of money, our tax dollars, to some firms who did not live up to their value,” he told the Board of Corrections in November. “They are going to sue us, we’re going to sue them because the state cannot accept performance like we’ve gotten from this group ever again. It’s just an awful, terrible situation.”

Hier said the new price tag should not surprise lawmakers, who are investigating what went wrong during the construction. He noted that lawmakers approved a $130.6 million construction bond in 2008 and have appropriated $27 million more in increments through 2014. Lawmakers have also approved millions for project management, and the state received $6 million in renewable energy credits and other receipts to pay for it, he said.

Asked why he didn’t correct the price tag earlier, longtime corrections spokesman Fred Scaletta said the question was more complicated than it seems and took several agencies to answer.

“It’s been a very difficult project in many areas,” he said.

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