State officials back moving DMV headquarters from Raleigh to Rocky Mount

March 5, 2019

North Carolina’s Council of State on Tuesday approved moving the main offices of the state Division of Motor Vehicles from Raleigh to Rocky Mount.

The vote was unanimous and without discussion, despite a month-long delay so council members could get more information on the proposal.

The vote was crucial, but not final.

The General Assembly still must agree to fund the move, and an effort is afoot to tinker with the plan. State employees have pushed back hard against the move, arguing that it’s unfair to take the office an hour east and force the old building’s 400 employees to commute – or quit.

Recent DMV listening sessions on the move ginned up responses from 255 of those employees, and 145 said they’d leave their jobs rather than commute. Forty-eight said they’d move with the headquarters, with the rest unsure, according to a DMV summary of the meetings.

Those findings got some media coverage Monday but weren’t submitted to the Council of State, which State Employees Association of North Carolina Executive Director Robert Broome called “disrespectful” after the council’s quick Tuesday morning vote. The council is made up of Gov. Roy Cooper and nine other statewide-elected officials, and it signs off on state government property decisions.

“They delayed it a month so they could hear employee concerns,” Broome said.

Cooper said Council of State members heard over the last month from employees and from DMV officials, and that “people knew what they wanted to do” when the meeting began Tuesday morning.

“I think it’s a good move,” the governor told reporters after the vote. “I think we’re being wise using taxpayer dollars.”

The DMV’s current headquarters on New Bern Avenue has a number of issues, so many that the General Assembly ordered the division through the budget last year to find a new home, either in Wake County or an adjacent one.

The DMV took bids and accepted the lowest one: $2.4 million a year for a building on North Church Street in Rocky Mount that once housed the headquarters of the Hardee’s fast-food chain.

Over 15 years, the lease amounts to $36 million, a price tag opponents of the move quickly compared to the building’s value. Sen. Dan Blue, D-Wake, said the building sold for $1.3 million in 2016.

“The proposed lease agreement is a bad deal all around,” Blue, whose district includes the current headquarters, said in an emailed statement. “It’s a bad deal for hundreds of low-pay DMV employees that now face a 2-hour daily commute to work. It’s a bad deal for taxpayers.”

But it was the state budget that required the DMV to lease space, not buy.

It’s unclear why the language was written that way. Sen. Harry Brown, R-Onslow, a budget negotiator in the legislature, said Tuesday that he couldn’t recall those conversations, though they may have flowed from an assumption the headquarters would stay in Raleigh, where property values are high.

Regardless, it’s something the General Assembly may change now, Brown said.

Blue, SEANC and others are also concerned about hidden costs from the move, including training for new employees hired to replace the ones who won’t make the move.

Many DMV employees have said they cannot afford a 60-mile daily commute.

DMV spokesman Steve Abbott said there’s “still a long ways to go” in this process. Division officials have not yet drawn up a final lease, which will need General Assembly approval.

Cooper, who is from Nash County, spoke highly Tuesday about the concept of moving offices away from Raleigh to decentralize government where possible. He said there are no plans at this time to move other agencies but that the state might learn important lessons from the DMV move.