North Carolina's top elected officials signed off on Tuesday to move the state Division of Motor Vehicles headquarters from Raleigh to Rocky Mount by next year, a decision that could lead scores of state employees having to look elsewhere for work.
The Council of State, composed of Gov. Roy Cooper, Lt. Gov. Dan Forest and eight other elected statewide leaders, approved the recommendation of the Department of Transportation — DMV's parent and a Cabinet agency — to enter a contract that would last at least 15 years.
A state law ordered DMV to leave its aging property by October 2020 and seek leased property in Wake County or in surrounding counties. The lowest bid from 11 options was for the old offices of the Hardee's fast-food chain in Rocky Mount, 55 miles east of the current DMV headquarters, where 410 people currently work.
The council delayed a vote last month so members could collect more information from DOT as well as state employees and legislators, but had no debate Tuesday. The lease deal, expected to cost about $2.4 million annually, was included in a slate of property transactions the council approved with no dissenting votes.
As chair of the council, Cooper doesn't usually vote in meetings. He told reporters afterward that he supported the deal, given the parameters legislators placed upon any relocation.
"I think it's a positive move for the state and I think we're being wise using taxpayer dollars," Cooper said, adding modern technology doesn't require all employees to be centrally located in Raleigh. "I think this will be something we can learn from. I hope that this is successful. If it's not, then we'll learn a lesson."
The State Employees Association of North Carolina is unhappy with the decision, saying the full cost of the move hasn't been considered. It cites the hardships that many current workers could face in driving hundreds of extra miles per week or finding transportation to get to Rocky Mount every day. Of the 255 employees who responded during listening sessions last week, 145 said they planned to leave the agency if the headquarters moved more than 30 miles away.
Association Executive Director Robert Broome said his group "is extremely disappointed in the level of disrespect and disregard that the Council of State has shown" by failing to truly hear the concerns of workers. Some workers could receive financial relocation assistance, DOT told lawmakers last month.
Democratic Sen. Dan Blue, whose Wake County district includes the current headquarters, called the decision "a bad deal all around."
He said in a news release that the building chosen to house the headquarters is "sub-standard" compared to other state-owned buildings that are vacant and could be used instead.
Lawmakers could still intervene to reset the search process and scuttle the move. A bill filed last week by Rep. John Torbett, a Gaston County Republican, would tell DMV to consider properties for sale, not just for lease. Torbett has said a one-time purchase could be more fiscally responsible than a lease contract.
DMV spokesman Steve Abbott said the lease still must be drawn up and signed, and lawmakers also would have to agree to fund the lease payments.
Cooper is originally from rural Nash County, which includes part of Rocky Mount. The Democrat said the bidding process was fair and followed the process set out largely by the Republican-controlled General Assembly.