City and county officials have taken the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation off the hook. Now, local taxpayers can only hope that the Kansas Legislature returns the favor.
Although members of the Lawrence City Commission and Douglas County Commission expressed displeasure over the precedent they were creating, they decided this week to commit $450,000 in local tax money for the next two years to maintain an SRS office in Lawrence. That completely covers the amount state SRS would have saved by closing the office. SRS officials earlier had said that closing the office would save the state about $450,000 per year, but had to revise that figure after learning that about half that amount was federal funds that simply would be lost by the state.
SRS Secretary Rob Siedlecki told a Kansas Public Radio reporter Thursday that the local funding deal was “a win-win for everybody,” but it doesn’t really feel that way. Blackmail may be too strong a word, but by threatening to close the local SRS office, state officials put local governments in a near-impossible situation.
Using local tax dollars to take over a state responsibility sets a terrible precedent, but if local officials stood on principle, there would be significant social and economic costs for the county. There was the human cost to thousands of residents who depend on SRS services as well as the economic loss of 87 employees and the estimated loss of $2.4 million in food stamp assistance that wouldn’t be distributed in Lawrence.
Timing also was critical. City and county officials were told that SRS was preparing to move furniture out of the local offices. It appeared that the office closing would be over and done with before state legislators got around to looking into the situation. Once the office was closed, it would be extremely difficult to have it restored.
City and county officials made the decision they thought they had to make for the good of the community. Nonetheless, it could be a decision they live to regret.
SRS office closings across the state have gotten the attention of some state legislators who say they intended for administrative budget cuts included in the budget to take place at the state level, not at local offices. Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, said Tuesday that she hoped legislators will consider the issue in the 2012 session and perhaps order funding to the Lawrence office to be restored. According to the local funding agreement, if that happens, the city and county are no longer obligated to continue their financial support.
In his KPR interview, Siedlecki made no reference to revisiting the situation for the next two years. After the local funding agreement runs out, he said, his office will “make good faith efforts to keep the office open” with additional funding from the Legislature.
We hope the Legislature won’t wait that long to act. City and county officials stepped into this situation because they believed the closing of the local office would be beyond the point of no return before legislators could take any action. They were backed into a corner and made the best decision they could — but that doesn’t make it OK for local taxpayers to fund this state responsibility.
State legislators need to review this situation as quickly as possible and make it right.