Statehouse Live: Legislative committee seeks answers on SRS office closures

? A key legislator on Thursday rejected the justification used by the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services to shut down the Lawrence agency office and eight others.

And a legislative committee has asked for information from SRS related to the closures.

SRS Secretary Robert Siedlecki Jr. has said the closures are necessary because of a legislative mandate included in the state appropriations bill that the agency find $1 million in administrative cuts.

But Senate Ways and Means Committee Chair Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick, said that was not the case.

“The cuts were supposed to be at the administration level in Topeka and not be dispersed to local offices,” said McGinn, who as the lead budget-writer in the Senate was instrumental in putting the final state budget together that was approved by the Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Sam Brownback.

McGinn said that during the legislative session, SRS officials invited reductions. “They said they could handle the cuts,” McGinn said.

While Siedlecki has decided to close nine SRS offices, he also has added new positions among top-level administration, such as a $97,500-per-year deputy secretary for faith-based initiatives.

SRS spokesman Angela De Rocha, however, said Siedlecki and the agency “were very transparent during the session that if administrative cuts were passed, office restructuring was a possibility. We even provided a list of possible cuts which included office restructuring as an option to meet budget reductions.”

McGinn said she expected legislators to start delving into the office closure decision.

That started on Thursday as the Joint Committee on State Building Construction requested information on SRS’ actions.

Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, a member of the committee, said the office closures raised several questions.

Francisco asked for information on:

• Whether SRS pays building rents on a monthly or annual basis.

• How staff reductions in the agency have affected office space considerations.

She also said SRS is paying more in rent per square foot in Topeka than it is paying for space in Lawrence.

Rep. Bob Grant, D-Cherokee, asked for a tally of how much the office closures are supposed to save the state.

“Supposedly, these closings will save millions of dollars without losses of jobs. I’m trying to figure out how that is happening,” Grant said.

The Lawrence office, the largest of those to be shut down, would save approximately $400,000, with most of that coming from rent, according to SRS. But local leaders have said the closure will result in vulnerable Lawrence residents losing services and pushing extra costs onto local nonprofit agencies. Others have argued that SRS might face a legal challenge if it breaks its lease, which would eat into any potential savings.

The committee said it wanted to hear from SRS and Department of Administration officials during its September meeting.