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On Saving Dix, and Stopping the TTA

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Wake County's legislative delegation is unanimous: They want the Easley administration to reverse its decision to abandon Dorothea Dix Hospital in Raleigh. Wait a minute. Unanimous? Vernon Malone and Russell Capps? As 11 of the county's 13 members and members-elect of the General Assembly met around a conference table last week with officials of the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to discuss Dix's future, a chipper lobbyist quipped: "We have a Wake County delegation. Did you write that down?"

Well, the start of the General Assembly session is two weeks away, so even the lobbyists working for social causes are able to be upbeat. (Wait until summer.) But even by mid-winter standards, the fact that Wake's Democratic and Republican legislators were in the same room, working on the same goal, was a break from the partisan, and acrimonious past.

Part of it could be explained by the fact that the delegation has six new faces, including two rather senior "junior" senators, former County Manager Richard Stevens, a Republican, and Democrat Malone, who will be stepping down as a county commissoner after 18 years.

Sen. Eric Reeves, who at 39 is the "senior" Democratic senator now that Brad Miller's moved on to Congress, convened the gathering and, without saying anything about its novelty, nonetheless took time to court each "new" legislator: "New" (Don Munford). "New" (Deborah Ross). "New" (Bernard Allen). "New" (Paul Stam). Then Reeves came to the senior Republican present, Rep. Sam Ellis, outfitted in tone-on-tone brown and sporting a new mustache and goatee. "New attitude," Ellis deadpanned.

In a hard-fought re-election victory over former Raleigh Mayor Paul Coble, Reeves promised to be a champion for human services programs and to work across the aisle with Republicans like Stevens, who's considered a moderate when compared to GOP conservatives like Capps and Ellis. Thus, this meeeting marked a first step toward both goals for Reeves.

It was also a big step for Ann Akland, the advocate for the mentally ill recently honored with a Citizen's Award by The Independent. Much of the meeting consisted of Akland making the case for building a new (smaller) Dix on the current hospital site, and DHHS Deputy Secretary Lanier Cansler arguing against it. DHHS wants to trim the number of state hospitals from four to three, replacing both Dix and the John Umstead Hospital in Butner, with one new (smaller) hospital in Butner. Akland, representing the Wake County chapter of NAMI (the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill), said both Dix and Umstead should be replaced. Then Capps and Malone stated the obvious: Everyone was there to support Akland.

How long this era of Wake bipartisanship will last is a question mark, however. The conservatives, especially Ellis, consider programs for the mentally ill and handicapped an exception to their rule that government's not the answer, only the problem. The Democrats, among them, have many causes. In a note to NAMI members later, Akland said one legislator remarked to her on the way out, "(Dix) may be the only thing we agree on all session."

If, indeed, they can agree on that. Reeves has already written Gov. Mike Easley to say he is "adamantly opposed" to closing Dix. Next step: Getting the Wake delegation to stand together on what promises to be a contentious budget issue. DHHS will be asking the General Assembly to authorize $102 million for the new Umstead facility; the Wake delegates, if united, can block that request, but will they fight for the $40-60 million more that DHHS says it will cost to build a new Dix too? In a session that starts with talk of a $2 billion shortfall?

Was the value of the Dix property, 300-plus acres in downtown Raleigh, a factor in the administration's thinking? Capps asked. Cansler said no, sort of. The Umstead site in Butner is worth about $2,000 an acre, he said. Dix? He didn't know. A lot more. But the reason DHHS picked Butner over Raleigh, Cansler said, was that Granville County needed the jobs more than Wake.

Railing Against TTA Rail: What's the next big thing Wake Republicans will be running against? No question about it, it's the Triangle Transit Authority's proposed commuter rail service, which just the other day advanced another big step toward reality, winning federal approval to start acquiring property in the Durham-to-Raleigh right-of-way.

"That is nothing in the world but a sinkhole," Rep. Capps told a meeting of local Citizens for a Sound Economy hours after the Dix lovefest. "And we've got to stop it."

Some 50 conservative activists in attendance concurred. "We can stop this," declared Chuck Fuller, the former state CSE director who directed the winning campaign against the Wake County school bond in 1998, shaking the school system to its blackboards. "It's not that expensive and it's not that hard," he declared. "It just takes a lot of people working together."

Raleigh City Councilor Kieran Shanahan has already staked out the TTA as his wedge issue for this fall's City Council elections. Capps said it should be the Wake Republicans' No. 1 legislative issue, too. Their hope: To add it to the list of things (the '92 convention center bond, the Time & Light Tower) Raleigh Democrats wanted that got Republicans elected.

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Bob Geary can be reached at rjgeary@aol.com.

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