Raleigh, N.C. — As Raleigh officials prepare to battle state lawmakers over the lease of the Dorothea Dix site, the chairman of the Wake County Board of Commissioners says the issue should be left to area voters.
Under the terms of a 99-year lease signed in December by Raleigh Mayor Nancy McFarlane and former Gov. Beverly Perdue, the city would pay $500,000 a year – plus annual escalators – for the 325-acre site of a former mental hospital, allowing officials to convert into it into a major urban park.
Republican lawmakers criticized the deal, which they said didn't provide the state with a fair return. They also said it would end up costing taxpayers money because state Department of Health and Human Services offices at the site would have to be moved.
Last week, companion bills filed in the House and Senate called for voiding the lease and renegotiating it at a fair market price, with the proceeds designated for mental health programs. Also, DHHS would be allowed to maintain its offices on part of the site.
Wake County Commissioner Joe Bryan, a Republican, agrees with lawmakers that Raleigh got too good a deal, and he said Tuesday that local voters should decide if they want to pay the state what the Dix site is worth.
"I don't have any problems with having a great park, but let's pay for it," Bryan said. "(About) $500,000 a year, on a lease from city of Raleigh for this pristine area, right in the central part of Raleigh, is not appropriate. It's low-ball."
He suggested that the state get the property appraised and that a bond referendum for that amount be placed on the ballot. A 1 cent increase to the county property tax rate could raise up to $60 million, he said.
A state appraisal two years ago determined the Dix site was worth $60 million to $86 million. With annual escalators, Raleigh's lease would eventually pay the state $68 million over the first 75 years of the deal.
"It should be fair to state of North Carolina along with city of Raleigh to pay what the assessed value is for it," Bryan said. "Have those assets available to help mental illness."
The Raleigh City Council and city attorneys met in a closed-door session Tuesday to discuss their legal options for the challenge to the Dix lease.
McFarlane said the state should honor its contract with the city.
"It was a very fair deal. We spent nine years working for this," she said, adding that the value to the state goes beyond the annual lease payments.
"Look at New York. What would it be without Central Park? St. Louis, what would it be without its Arch?" she said. "You really have to be able to see the big picture. It's much more than a dollar-per-acre. At this point, it really is a huge economic engine for all of us, and it benefits the state."
Gov. Pat McCrory, who succeeded Perdue in January, hasn't taken a stand on the proposed legislation. Spokeswoman Crystal Feldman said McCrory supports Raleigh's effort for a park, but he also would like to keep DHHS employees there.
A group of local business leaders and civic boosters known as Dix Visionaries has already pledged $3 million to help the city create a master plan for the park.