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Lawmakers pump brakes on planned move of DMV headquarters

February 13, 2019

A plan to move the state Division of Motor Vehicles headquarters from Raleigh to Rocky Mount may have hit a speed bump.

Members of a key House committee said Tuesday that they want more information about the proposal before they consider paying for it.

A provision in last year’s state budget requires the DMV to move from its offices on New Bern Avenue, east of downtown Raleigh, by October 2020 because of problems in that aging building, including asbestos.

The DMV asked for bids in Wake County and surrounding counties, and the lowest bid received was for a building on North Church Street in Rocky Mount that once housed the headquarters of the Hardee’s fast-food chain – nearly an hour away.

The Rocky Mount site would cost the state $2.4 million a year to operate, according to state records, and state law requires DMV to recommend the lowest bid to state officials for approval.

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

Nicole Hunter, who has worked for the agency for 19 years, told the House Transportation Appropriations Committee that she wouldn’t be able to care for her aging parents or drop her grandson to day care if she has to drive to Rocky Mount for her job.

“It’s a serious economic impact on those of us doing what we’re supposed to do – just taking care of community and family,” Hunter said. “You’re going to make a person choose between family and work. That’s not fair.”

DMV Commissioner Torre Jessup said it’s difficult to gauge have many of the 411 employees in the headquarters building would quit or retire to avoid the hour-long commute. Officials are trying to figure out what kind of assistance they could provide to encourage more to stay, he said, noting that about a quarter of them likely would qualify for relocation help.

“We know that we’re going to have some attrition,” Jessup said.

Steve Abbott, a spokesman for the Department of Transportation, said Tuesday afternoon that there are no plans to survey DMV workers about a potential move. Once a final decision is made on the new headquarters location, he said, feedback will be gathered from workers.

Rep. Yvonne Holley, D-Wake, whose district includes the existing DMV headquarters, said she would like to see the costs of moving and retraining workers factored into the total cost of the deal before determining the lowest bid.

“We’re making a cost-based decision without knowing exactly how much it’s going to cost,” agreed Rep. Grier Martin, D-Wake.

Jessup noted that the second-lowest bid on the project was in Durham, which was half the distance for the average worker than the trip to Rocky Mount but was only five minutes shorter in terms of daily commute time.

“No matter where you move, somebody’s going to be at a disadvantage,” said Rep. Shelley Willingham, D-Edgecombe, who lives in Rocky Mount and supports the move. “Employment, too, is a matter of choice, you know. People make choices every day.”

Rep. John Torbett, R-Gaston, the House transportation budget writer, said he would like to allow DMV to possibly buy property for its headquarters instead of signing a long-term lease, saying he thinks it would be a better deal for the taxpayers. He also said, like Holley, that lawmakers shouldn’t approve the move until they know the total cost to the workforce.

“On this coin, there are truly two sides. There’s the fiscally responsible side – the actual cost to taxpayers – and then there’s the humanity side,” Torbett said. “We did not look as deep as I feel like we should have the first time around on the impacts to the humanity side.”

Jessup said DMV will still need an office in Raleigh for him to work and to handle license plate services. Residents have expressed concerns about having even longer lines at nearby license plate offices if the one on New Bern Avenue closes.

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