McCrory, GOP legislative leaders want Perdue’s Dix plan blocked

Panel on fence about Perdue’s proposal, but new leaders oppose it

jfrank@newsobserver.comNovember 27, 2012 

Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue’s plan to convert the Dorothea Dix Hospital property into a major urban park faces an uncertain future.

The 10-member Council of State is expected to consider a proposal in early December from the governor to lease the property to the city of Raleigh for 75 to 99 years.

But a majority of the panel – comprising all statewide elected leaders – remains undecided on whether to move forward.

Three members tentatively support the park concept but expressed concern about the price tag for the lease and questioned the relocation of the existing state Department of Health and Human Services offices.

At least one member stands opposed. The others declined Tuesday to take a public position.

“I do support the grounds being used as a destination park, but I’m still looking at all the materials and proposals about the lease and consolidation of DHHS,” said Superintendant of Public Instruction June Atkinson.

Republican Gov.-elect Pat McCrory and top GOP lawmakers called on the Council of State to nix the plan and delay action until next year for the incoming administration to consider.

N.C. Senate leader Phil Berger attacked Perdue directly Tuesday, saying she is overstepping her bounds to “create a last-minute legacy.” But a bill to require legislative approval to transfer the Dix property died in the Senate last year after being approved by the House.

“I urge the Council of State to be the ‘adults in the room’ and reject her hasty plan to hand over a valuable state asset with little in return,” said Berger, an Eden Republican.

A McCrory spokesman said the governor-elect supports a delay “until he and the legislature can study the impact to North Carolina taxpayers and ensure it does not adversely impact the state.”

Perdue touts savings

But Perdue aides argue the deal is far from rushed. The idea for a park is a decade in the making and the state issued a public request for bids to relocate the Dix offices and build a new consolidated health department campus 11 months ago.

By acting now, Perdue said in a statement, the state can save about $90 million to consolidate state health offices and take advantage of low construction costs.

“It is a shame that in the first few weeks after a very heated campaign season, that some of North Carolina’s leaders continue to try to divide people by political party and not bring people together,” Perdue said.

If state lawmakers wanted jurisdiction over the potential sale of the Dix property, they should have passed a law this year when they had the chance, said Rep. Deborah Ross, D-Wake. In June, such a bill failed in a Senate committee.

“Sometimes the General Assembly does get involved in extraordinary cases, but that’s when the General Assembly passes a law to be involved in that case,” she said.

In January, the Council of State will shift from an 8-2 Democratic majority to a 6-4 advantage with McCrory setting the agenda.

Much about a potential deal remains unknown – particularly how much the city would pay the state to lease the 300-acre property. The city estimates the property’s value at roughly $35 million, while a state appraisal pegged it at $58 million. Perdue’s office said it is still negotiating the terms.

Cherie Berry, the Republican labor commissioner, said she is concerned about the lack of information and believes Perdue shouldn’t move forward with the plan in her final six weeks.

Backed by 2 key Democrats

But Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton and Attorney General Roy Cooper, two other Democrats, said they supported a park.

“As I’ve said in the past, I support preserving the green space of the park as long as the state gets fair compensation for the property,” Dalton said in a statement. “I will carefully review the details of any final plan before it comes to a vote.”

A spokesman for Cooper said he “has long supported a park at Dix because of its positive effect on economic recruitment and quality of life for North Carolinians, and would like to see a consensus plan reached with state and local leaders that includes a fair price and a commitment to improved mental health services.”

Fate of mentally ill questioned

Overlooked in the latest round of volleying is the plight of the mentally ill, said Deby Dihoff, director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness-North Carolina.

With the hospital now closed, mental health advocates want the state to designate money from any land sale toward new and expanded community-based care programs.

“This is a chance to take a substantial chunk of change and dedicate it to improving the recovery of people with mental illness,” Dihoff said. “That would be a wonderful legacy for Dorothea Dix.”

Lucy Bode, a Raleigh resident and board member for the Dix Visionaries advocacy group, said the park concept is well vetted.

“We’ve been working relentlessly for seven years, involving thousands of people from all across the state – Democrats, Republicans, business leaders, environmentalists, making them aware of the opportunity to make this a world class destination.,” said Bode, a former DHHS secretary under former Democratic Gov. Jim Hunt.

Bode encouraged Berger and Tillis to work with Gov. Perdue.

“The problem in politics today seems to be more concern about who’s getting credit than with doing the right thing. Every time somebody proposes something great and it becomes political, the other party wants to block it.

“That’s at the heart of the problem we have in politics right now.”

Frank: 919-829-4698

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