Raleigh residents could vote on Dorothea Dix purchase in November

ccampbell@newsobserver.comApril 10, 2014 

— If state and city leaders can reach an agreement on the sale price, Raleigh’s purchase of the Dorothea Dix property for a new park will likely go before city voters as early as November.

Gov. Pat McCrory’s counteroffer released Wednesday makes the price range clear: The sale will fall between Raleigh’s $38 million offer and the state’s $52.2 million proposal. Raleigh will have to borrow to afford the purchase, and City Councilwoman Mary-Ann Baldwin said the council has agreed to put that bond issue on a ballot referendum.

“Unlike a public safety center, this is a nice thing to have – not a critical thing to have,” Baldwin said Thursday. “We felt it would be appropriate to let the public decide.”

Baldwin said that if both sides reach a final sale price for Dix, November is the earliest possible date for a bond referendum. The city’s $38 million offer, made last month, notes that “this transaction is contingent upon approval of bond financing.”

Like last year’s $75 million transportation bond issue, the borrowing would require a property tax increase. The city’s chief financial officer, Perry James, said that a 1-cent tax rate increase would cover about $70 million to $75 million in borrowing.

That means that to fund the Dix purchase at the lowest possible price – $38 million – property owners could expect an additional half-cent of taxes per $100 valuation, or $15 more each year for a $300,000 house.

Raleigh leaders are already discussing a parks bond referendum this fall, and Baldwin said Dix could be paired on the ballot with a package of park projects throughout the city.

“I personally believe that putting a parks bond package on would make the most sense,” she said. “That would bring some geographic balance and equity to this process.”

But Joey Stansbury, who has been critical of Raleigh’s efforts to get the Dix property, said the vote should be separate from funds for other projects. “That’s been a clever gimmick in the past” to sway voters interested in other popular initiatives, he said.

Stansbury also wants Raleigh to include the cost of developing the Dorothea Dix park in the bond issue. “I commend Raleigh for finally including the citizens in this process, however, the vote in November needs to be a full representation of the costs, not just the purchase price,” he said.

Negotiators for the state and city disagree on who should cover environmental cleanup costs, estimated to run between $10.9 million and $22.7 million. And Raleigh doesn’t yet know the cost of converting the former psychiatric hospital to a park. Mayor Nancy McFarlane has said a master planning process will start once the purchase is finalized and could take years.

Including the Dix purchase in this fall’s proposed parks bonds could leave other projects unfunded. The parks department has already identified $106.78 million in potential projects to consider. Among those on the list: a $12.5 million overhaul of Southeast Raleigh’s Chavis Park, $12 million for a new community center at Northwest Raleigh’s Baileywick Park, $1 million for a new playground at Laurel Hills Park that’s accessible for children with disabilities, $8 million to fix up swimming pools and $6 million for a new Pullen Art Center.

Many of them might not make the cut: Baldwin said she thinks $80 million is an appropriate ballpark figure for the bond issue. The Dix purchase would take up about half that amount – more if the McCrory administration insists on its $52.2 million asking price.

Campbell: 919-829-4802; Twitter: @RaleighReporter

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