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Archive for Sunday, April 24, 2005

SRS shake-up criticized for being politicized

Demotions, complaints of lack of service have lawmakers ordering an audit

April 24, 2005

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— Reorganization of the state's major social service agency was presented by officials as a way to get services more efficiently to those who need them.

But some employees at the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services say the reorganization has been fraught with politics, and that closing scores of SRS satellite offices across Kansas has hampered the agency's ability to reach vulnerable Kansans.

In addition, the Kansas Civil Service Board recently rejected SRS' attempts to demote several people as part of the reorganization, saying the agency didn't follow state rules.

And lawmakers have ordered an audit of the reorganization.

"The concern is over not only the employees themselves, but with the clients," said Rep. Lana Gordon, R-Topeka, one of the legislators ordering the audit.

But SRS officials say the reorganization has gone well and they welcome the review by the Legislative Division of Post-Audit. SRS has appealed the Civil Service Board rulings.

"Any time you go through this kind of change, people are going to feel some degree of uncertainty," said Candy Shively, a deputy secretary with SRS.

Shutting offices

SRS is one of the largest state agencies with a budget of $2.7 billion in an overall state budget of $11.3 billion.

The agency provides or oversees a wide range of services that affect Kansans, from Medicaid and temporary cash assistance to foster care and adoption. SRS provides medical assistance to about 275,000 Kansans.

In 2002, the agency sustained budget cuts as tax receipts cratered in the post 9-11 economic slump. By last year, SRS had reduced its 11 regional offices to six, and it is almost finished closing 62 of its 105 county offices.

House Minority Leader Dennis McKinney, D-Greensburg, has seen several SRS offices in his district shut down.

"Most of us out here believe it is easier to fall through the cracks now," he said.

The Lawrence area office was one of those folded into other regions with Douglas and Franklin counties merging with a new Kansas City Metro regional office.

Many of the area counties that had been under the Lawrence area office, such as Jefferson, Jackson, Brown, Atchison and Doniphan counties, are now part of SRS' northeast region, which is based in Topeka. It is in this region where there have been challenges by personnel to new staffing assignments.

Civil service battles

Some employees received pay cuts while others got raises. SRS said they didn't know the exact figures on these changes.

But five SRS employees in the northeast region contested their demotions.

In their pleadings, they alleged SRS was using political favoritism to decide who would be among the "Chosen People" to get promoted and who would get demoted.

For example, Laura Moore, a 15-year employee who in 2004 had been named Outstanding Social Worker of the Year by the Kansas University Social Work Alumni Assn., was demoted.

She alleged the demotion was an attempt to discipline her for complaining about patronage and arbitrary favoritism.

SRS denied the accusations and requested a summary judgment against her and the employees.

The Civil Service Board ruled against SRS and ordered that the employees be reinstated to their previous positions. SRS has refused to do so as it appeals the board's decision.

Moore said a different culture was growing at SRS. "We call it assembly line social work. You don't have the chance to do case management anymore," she said.

Social workers are swamped with huge caseloads and unable to focus on delivering specific services to people, she said.

Earlier this year, the Kansas Association of Public Employees accused SRS management of trying to intimidate workers and dissuade them from talking to KAPE officials.

For its part, SRS says it is trying to do its best with tight budgets, and is improving its ability to serve people needing its services.

Shively cited a customer service survey by the Docking Institute at Fort Hays State University. The survey of SRS customers reported that after local offices were closed, 49 percent believe the process of applying for services remained the same, while 39 percent believe it worsened and 12 percent said it improved.

Paul Johnson, a lobbyist for the Public Assistance Coalition of Kansas, said SRS was struggling with limited resources.

"When you look at the raw numbers, statewide they have 4,000 positions, but they keep 700 positions open just to make their budget work," Johnson said.

This results in 40 percent of Kansans eligible for food stamps, not receiving them, and the collection of only 55 percent of owed child support, he said.

The legislative audit of SRS will focus on the impact of the reorganization on employees and clients. It is due to be completed in mid-June.

Gordon, the Topeka legislator who requested the audit, said she recently attended a meeting with 25 SRS workers who told her about problems at the agency.

She said state employees generally didn't come forward for fear of jeopardizing their jobs.

"For as many to come forward with concerns, we really need to take a look at this," she said.

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