NC Senate votes to jettison Raleigh's lease for Dix property

ccampbell@newsobserver.comMarch 27, 2013 

— After a heated debate, the Senate voted Tuesday to toss out Raleigh’s lease on the Dorothea Dix property, in the process creating a new legal body to hear any lawsuit their action might prompt.

The 29-21 vote was largely along party lines, but Wake County’s two Republican senators joined Democrats in opposing the bill. The measure now moves to the House, where several Republicans have sponsored an identical bill.

Sponsors of Senate Bill 334 called the contract – worth $68 million over 75 years – a bad deal for the state. The Senate and House bills call for renegotiating the lease at “fair market value” and dedicating the money to mental health. They also call for locating the Department of Health and Human Services offices on the Dix property.

“Shouldn’t we have the fiduciary responsibility to have the best price available so that money can be used for mental health as required by (the original deed of) that property?” asked Sen. Bob Rucho, R-Mecklenburg.

But Sen. Chad Barefoot joined fellow Wake County Republican Sen. Neal Hunt in opposing the bill. Calling his action a “protest vote,” Barefoot said the lease should be considered a done deal.

“I do not appreciate the process by which the lease was agreed to with Gov. Perdue doing it as she left office,” he said. “However, I don’t think the state should break the lease.”

Barefoot and Hunt criticized the lease while voicing support for Raleigh’s own version of Central Park. “It really was a difficult decision, but I have been a proponent of the 300-acre Dix park for years,” Hunt said. “I just think for Wake County it’s such a valuable resource, despite that (the lease) is way below market value.”

Hunt and Barefoot were among the Wake legislators who attended a packed public meeting Monday with about 300 people – the majority of them park supporters.

Sen. Josh Stein, a Wake County Democrat, questioned the motives of the bill’s supporters. “This is about a lease you didn’t like because it was signed by a governor you didn’t like with a city you don’t like,” he said.

But Sen. Ralph Hise, a co-sponsor of the bill from Mitchell County, said Perdue broke the law by signing the lease before planning where DHHS employees would move. The lease allows the offices to remain for up to 15 years. “The DHHS budget is a difficult process to go through, and the state does not need to be handing away its revenue,” Hise said.

While Hise argues that the lease terms give the state an out, the agreement could wind up in court if the bill becomes law. Raleigh leaders are already in talks with attorneys, and an amendment to the bill passed Tuesday anticipates the possibility.

Hise’s co-sponsor, Sen. Louis Pate, R-Wayne, added a provision for a three-judge panel appointed by the state Supreme Court to hear any suit from Raleigh. The panel would include one Superior Court judge each from Wake County, the eastern part of the state and the western part. Pate said the process is similar to redistricting cases and is necessary because the lease involves a statewide asset.

“This is a very cumbersome, very unwieldy proceeding that I haven’t seen anywhere else,” Sen. Dan Blue, a Raleigh Democrat, said of the amendment. “The only reason we’re really doing it is because we question the underlying action this represents.”

Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane also took issue with the new process. “It certainly seems that if this were to go to trial, we would have the right to a jury trial in Wake County like anyone else,” she said.

Several Wake County Democrats told their colleagues that business leaders are worried about the precedent of breaking a lease.

“We have got to start living up to our word,” said Senate minority leader Martin Nesbitt, D-Asheville. “I ask that we please stop this nonsense before we destroy the integrity of this state.”

Tuesday’s vote count doesn’t represent a veto-proof majority. While Gov. Pat McCrory hasn’t spoken publicly about efforts to revoke the lease, in a December press conference, the incoming governor was asked his opinion on Perdue’s agreement.

“She’s the governor – that’s how I feel about it,” he said. “She has the authority to make those moves.”

He added that he wished the effort had been delayed but said “I’m all for the park.”

Barefoot, who is serving his first term, said he’s hopeful for a compromise between opponents of the lease and park supporters, though he declined to offer specifics.

McFarlane says city leaders want to stick to the original contract.

“To go back and change this deal and renegotiate – how do I know in several months that’s not going to get undone?” she said.

Staff writer John Frank contributed to this report

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

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