Politics & Government

Some DHHS employees say they may quit if headquarters leaves Raleigh

Dottie Burns lives in Johnston County and commutes to her job at the Department of Health and Human Services in Raleigh. If the General Assembly’s plan to relocate DHHS headquarters from Dix Park to Granville County comes to fruition, her commute would be two-and-a-half hours round trip.

“I think it’s egregious,” Burns said Tuesday about the plan. “I’d have to get to work at 6:30 [a.m.] or so and then leave early to have a life after work.”

The General Assembly’s proposed budget, which was vetoed by Gov. Roy Cooper, calls for moving DHHS headquarters from Dix Park near downtown Raleigh to a new location in Granville County.

The move could significantly increase the commute of nearly 2,000 state employees. Or some say they might quit.

At a forum Tuesday night to discuss the move, about two dozen DHHS employees raised their hands to indicate that’s what they would do, citing the commute, not wanting to move their children into a different school system and not wanting to leave the state capital.

DHHS is in the district of Senate Minority Whip Jay Chaudhuri, a Raleigh Democrat. Chaudhuri hosted the town hall meeting with the State Employees Association of North Carolina at the association’s Raleigh office.

Democrats have accused Republican leaders of trying to bribe Democrats by offering DHHS headquarters to their districts in exchange for a vote to override Cooper’s veto.

Impact of DHHS move on employees

DHHS employee Arlisa Reese was out on maternity leave when she heard about the proposed relocation on the news.

“My concern is I am just getting back to work,” Reese said.

Seventy percent of DHHS employees at the Dix location are women, Chaudhuri said.

Reese’s baby is now 3 months old, and she also has a 6-year-old. Her husband works in Raleigh as well. She said they can’t move to Granville County, and the commute would be too long for her as a parent of young children.

“My concern is the people making these decisions aren’t affected by these decisions,” Reese said.

Kevin Brackett lives in Morrisville and has a 25-minute commute to DHHS, where he works in the office of the internal auditor. He said he doesn’t want to move. He has lived in the Cary area since he was 9 years old, he said, and his parents are nearby.

But more important to Brackett is what his co-workers do, too. At least three said they would have to quit. He’s not sure yet what he would do.

“I would probably just wait and see how many of my co-workers leave,” he said. “Work is as good as what your co-workers make it. I really like all my co-workers.”

Budget negotiation

While the state budget standoff is primarily about Medicaid expansion, the DHHS relocation has also been thrown into the mix of negotiations.

“Instead of negotiating, Republican leaders have spent their time recklessly and irresponsibly auctioning off the headquarters for the Department of Health and Human Services,” a Cooper spokesperson wrote in a release last week.

In 2015, the state sold 307 acres to the city of Raleigh for $52 million to transform it into Dorothea Dix Park. DHHS offices remained on site.

When the park land was sold, state offices were expected to remain there for several years via leasing it from the city. The potential move was first proposed in the Senate budget, and remained in the conference budget, which is the budget agreed on by the House and Senate to present to the governor.

Sen. Ralph Hise, a Spruce Pine Republican and the Senate’s deputy president pro tempore, said previously that the state “practically gave away” the Dix property to the city of Raleigh, and legislators have known they would need to find a new home for DHHS.

In Cooper’s budget compromise, he called for the relocation site for DHHS to be studied, not planned for Granville County.

072219-DHHS TOWNHALL-TEL01.JPG
Sen. Jay Chaudhuri (D-Wake) hosts a town hall with Department of Health and Human Services employees and the State Employees Association of North Carolina Tuesday, July 23, 2019 at SEANC headquarters in Raleigh regarding the General Assembly’s proposal to relocate DHHS headquarters from Dix Park to Granville County. Travis Long tlong@newsobserver.com

Budget standoff

SEANC has been pushing Democratic House representatives to vote to override Cooper’s budget veto. House Speaker Tim Moore, a Kings Mountain Republican, has added an override vote to the House calendar for several days without taking a vote.

Democrats have complained that a vote could be taken when someone is absent or has stepped out briefly. But the speaker still decides when the vote is taken. A supermajority is needed to override a veto, so that means at least seven Democrats and all Republicans in the House would need to vote for it to pass.

The House has been in session twice this week and did not take an override vote. Meanwhile, Senate leader Phil Berger and Cooper took to Twitter to voice their opinions on the budget standoff, exchanging tweets about a lack of negotiation. The conference budget, as Berger reiterated, calls for a special session just about Medicaid expansion. But Cooper wants Medicaid expansion to be part of budget negotiations.

The budget stalemate continues three weeks into the new fiscal year.

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Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan covers North Carolina state government and politics at The News & Observer. She previously covered Durham for 13 years, and has received six North Carolina Press Association awards, including a 2018 award for investigative reporting.
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