Topeka After weeks of community anguish over a decision by Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration to shut down the Lawrence state welfare agency office, a deal was announced Monday that would keep the office open but require local payments.
Under the proposal, the city and county would each pay $112,500 to the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services in January 2012 and $112,500 in January 2013. That totals $450,000.
In return for satisfying SRS’ demand to cut its costs, SRS would keep the office in operation to September 2013. What happens after that, SRS Secretary Robert Siedlecki Jr. said, would depend on the economic condition of the state.
“We have committed to the community in Lawrence to make a good faith effort to seek adequate funding in subsequent years for that purpose,” he said.
Siedlecki, who had announced on July 1 the plan to close the Lawrence office, said that under the new payment proposal put together by local officials, “everyone wins.”
Both Douglas County Commission Chairman Jim Flory and Lawrence Mayor Aron Cromwell voiced support of the deal, which is contingent on approval after public hearings of the Lawrence City Commission todayon Tuesday, and the Douglas County Commission on Wednesday.
“I view this proposal as a temporary partnership between local and state governments that will benefit the entire community,” Flory said.
“Not only will approval of this proposal assure the continuance of essential social services to our constituents, it will also continue the economic benefit realized locally from a significant state payroll and by avoiding additional budgetary demands on many local social service agencies,” he said.
Cromwell said, “This proposal allows for the continuation of SRS services in Lawrence. SRS provides vital services to many of our residents. It is important to the Lawrence community to maintain the SRS presence in Lawrence.”
Officials said the county funds will come from money currently budgeted for future economic development. It will not require a mill levy increase. The city will dip into its fund balances.
Under the proposal, if the Legislature stepped up to provide the funding to keep open the Lawrence office, then the city and county would be released from the payment obligation.
If approved, the plan would resolve for now the controversial decision by Siedlecki to close the Lawrence office.
Siedlecki and Gov. Sam Brownback said closing SRS offices in Lawrence and eight other towns was needed to comply with a legislative requirement to cut $1 million in costs.
The Lawrence office was by far the largest one planned for closure, serving thousands of needy Kansans and employing 87 people.
Siedlecki and Brownback said clients at the office could access services online or travel to nearby cities, such as Topeka. The plan was to allow the employees to transfer to other offices.
Siedlecki said closing the Lawrence office would save more than $400,000 per year, with most of that money coming from rent for two buildings at 1900 and 1901 Del. But officials later said about half of those costs were paid through federal dollars.
But local officials said shutting down the Lawrence SRS office would have disrupted services to vulnerable Kansans, led to more criminal activity and child abuse, and placed additional burdens on already strapped nonprofit groups.
They said the notion that SRS clients, many of them with disabilities, could travel to other cities was not possible. And they noted that many services administered by SRS could not be accessed by computer.
Community leaders, advocates for the needy and law enforcement officials were stunned and in some cases angered when SRS announced it was shutting down the Lawrence office.
More than 1,000 people attended meetings and rallies shortly after the announcement. Nearly 20 local agencies said any savings to the state would have simply shifted onto them.
Law enforcement officials said they were concerned that without SRS social workers who were familiar with the territory there would be more cases of child abuse.
Douglas County commissioners held several closed-door sessions to discuss what options were available. On Friday, members of the County and City Commission met briefly with high-ranking SRS officials.
County Administrator Craig Weinaug said officials abided by all requirements of the state Open Meetings law. Three executive sessions were deemed privileged under the attorney-client privilege dealing with the possibility of lawsuits surrounding the situation, he said.
House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, said the proposed deal was “great news for the over 10,000 residents of Douglas County that depend on services provided by SRS.” He said he was confident city and county officials would approve the proposal.
Davis said closing the SRS office “was not an option.”
He added that he has never witnessed in Lawrence “such an outpouring of concern and compassion like what we have seen since the July 1 announcement by SRS that would they would close the Lawrence office. I have never been more proud to call Lawrence and Douglas County home.”