Senator opposing Dix lease pushed $1 sale of NC prison

ccampbell@newsobserver.comMarch 23, 2013 

  • Hearing Monday

    Wake County’s legislative delegation is holding a public meeting Monday. Several groups are urging supporters to speak out about Dix bill and other measures, including legislation curbing the zoning power of cities and a bill that changes how Wake County school board members are elected.

    The meeting starts at 4 p.m. in Room 643 in the Legislative Office Building, 300 N. Salisbury St. Speakers must sign up in advance by emailing steinla@ncleg.net or calling 919-715-6400 by 11 a.m. Monday.

— In touting his bill to revoke Raleigh’s lease on the Dorothea Dix property, Sen. Ralph Hise argues that the deal was too cheap and the capital city needs to pay fair market value for its park.

It’s not the first time Hise, a Republican from Mitchell County, has weighed in on a state property transfer. In 2011, he was the sole sponsor of a bill that sold a shuttered state prison in his western mountains district to Mayland Community College.

The total price for the property – valued on Avery County tax rolls at $2.01 million – was $1. The Dix lease calls for Raleigh to pay $500,000 a year, plus 1.5 percent annual increases, in a deal worth $68 million over 75 years.

“I wish I had known that I could have my own prison for the cost of a pack of gum,” quipped Raleigh City Councilman Bonner Gaylord, who’s among those blasting Hise for inconsistency.

Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin said she’s also concerned that Hise works for the college. He is an instructor and planning officer. “It surprises me that somebody who submitted a bill on behalf of their employer to sell state property for a dollar would ever criticize the governor and the city of Raleigh for coming up with a lease agreement that paid significant money,” she said. “This just smacks of hypocrisy and also conflict of interest.”

Hise said the Dix deal is a far cry from the sale of the old Blue Ridge Correctional Center. Mayland Community College wanted the property for a law-enforcement training center, which Hise considers a state government use and the best use of the site.

“We think as a state asset, our intent was to use that for an educational process to better train law enforcement officers,” he said.

And while Hise points to a 2011 appraisal that valued the Dix property at $84 million, he said the prison was long abandoned and falling apart. The last inmates left in 2002. “It took so many years, and the property was in such disarray, their only option was to use it for fire training,” he said. The buildings were torched to train firefighters last month; the college isn’t yet sure when it will build on the property.

Senate minority leader Martin Nesbitt, D-Asheville, said he supports the prison sale, and he has no ethical qualms about Hise leading the effort. But he said Hise and his fellow Republicans should apply the same thinking to the Dix plans. “I don’t think they’re constrained by consistency,” he said. “They’re not restrained by fairness or good government.”

Gaylord said the state should uphold the prison’s sale just as it should uphold the park lease, signed in December. “If anybody tried to renegotiate that $1 contract, I would be vehemently opposed, just as I am vehemently opposed to renegotiating the Dix lease,” he said. “It’s really frustrating because the legislators are representing the word and integrity of the citizens of North Carolina.”

Hise and his co-sponsors argue the Dix lease is invalid in part because an original deed for the land dedicates the property for a psychiatric hospital. The bill, which reaches the full Senate Monday, dedicates proceeds from any future lease to mental health care.

The 2011 sale to Mayland Community College had no such roadblocks, Hise said. “No one ever deeded the land to the state saying it should be used for a particular purpose.”

Campbell: 919-829-4802 or twitter.com/RaleighReporter

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