Let's auction off state agencies

Published June 5, 2019

By Tom Campbell

In 1788 the Hillsborough Convention convened to consider ratification of the US Constitution and also to approve an “unalterable” seat of government. They did neither.

The Constitution, they determined, lacked assurances of personal rights delegates deemed essential and, after much debate, they deferred the decision to another meeting. The next year North Carolina became the 12thstate to ratify, but only on condition that a declaration of rights and amendments be part of the document. 

The Assembly had previously moved around, at various times meeting in Edenton, Wilmington, New Bern, Fayetteville and Hillsborough. It was increasingly obvious that a permanent location be selected for the new state. Seven locations were formally nominated and a delegation was named to come back with a selection.

Isaac Hunter was a well-known tavern proprietor on the Cross Creek to Petersburg stage road. The commission chosen to select the “unalterable” site met at Hunter’s tavern on March 22, 1792. Hunter was famously known for serving Cherry Bounce, a popular alcoholic punch. Folk lore has it that Isaac liquored up the committee during a night of revelry, they took a vote and determined the new capital had to be located within 10 miles of Hunter’s tavern. 1,000 acres of land, within that 10-mile boundary, was purchased from Joel Lane and the capital has been in Raleigh ever since.

Some would obviously like to change that. We aren’t sure what their motivations might be but, judging by the evidence, a determined stealth campaign is under way. Our first signal came when it was decided that Dorothea Dix Mental Hospital was beyond repair and a new hospital was necessary. The state owned more than 1,000 acres at the site, but legislators opted instead to build a new mental facility in Butner, a decision that is still mystifying. Similarly, the headquarters for the Department of Motor Vehicles was determined unrepairable and a new headquarters was needed. There the decision was to move it and some 400 employees to Rocky Mount. 

Now our Senate wants to relocate the headquarters of the Department of Health and Human Services, the largest agency of state government, with some 2,000 employees, to Granville County. They couldn’t build on the Dix site because the state entered into a sweetheart deal with Raleigh to sell the Dix property. But Granville County? 

DHHS employs many highly skilled and credentialed people that interface all across state government. We can’t see Secretary Dr. Mandy Cohen moving or commuting each day to Granville. Nothing against Granville, but nobody has offered a compelling reason for the decision and God knows our Senators aren’t coming forth with plausible explanations. The decision was made in a back room in the legislature without consulting with the department, the Governor, the public or even House members in the same building. Was Cherry Bounce involved?

If de-centralization is the game, bring it on. We propose moving the Highway Patrol to Rockingham – we hear there’s a great test track nearby - and don’t you think the Court of Appeals and Supreme Court would love Blowing Rock? DOT could go to Lexington, Agriculture to Ocean Isle and what more ideal place for the Utilities Commission than Eden? Secretary of State Elaine Marshall would love to move her office to Buies Creek, and by all means let’s relocate the legislature to their first home, Edenton. 

Here’s a better idea. Since “unalterable” obviously isn’t unalterable, let’s hold a big auction and let counties and cities bid on hosting various state agencies, with the highest bid winning the rights. The proceeds could be used to start an impartial redistricting commission or even expand Medicaid. We will provide the Cherry Bounce.