Siedlecki, aides explain decision to close Lawrence SRS office

Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services Robert Siedlecki Jr. on Monday said there was no chance the Lawrence SRS office will be spared closure, but maintained there will be some SRS presence in the city.

Ten days after Siedlecki stunned Lawrence by announcing his plan to shut down the state’s fifth largest SRS office, the secretary and two of his assistants — Director of Legislative Affairs Gary Haulmark and Policy Director Michelle Schroeder — sat down for about 45 minutes with Lawrence Journal-World reporters and editors and talked about the closure decision.

“I wish it were different,” Siedlecki said. He said closing nine SRS offices, including Lawrence, was like asking a family which child they would be willing to sacrifice.

But, he said, his hand was forced by $42 million in cuts approved by Republicans in the Legislature and Gov. Sam Brownback, also a Republican.

Siedlecki, handpicked by Brownback to lead the state welfare agency, didn’t criticize the cuts, saying that SRS had to do its share in helping balance the state budget.

Siedlecki maintained “no politics” entered into the decision to close the Lawrence office. Some have said the Lawrence office was targeted because Lawrence is one of the few Democratic-leaning cities in the state.

For days, law enforcement officials, social service advocates and concerned citizens have asked SRS for a detailed explanation as to why the Lawrence office, with 87 employees, was slated for closure.

On Monday, Siedlecki produced a list of written reasons for closing the Lawrence office, including:

  1. Easy access to other nearby SRS offices: Topeka (29 miles, served by a four-lane highway); Ottawa (26 miles); Kansas City (37 miles, four-lane highway); Overland Park (36 miles, four-lane highway); Leavenworth (39 miles).
  2. There is significant capacity in neighboring offices, more than enough to accommodate Lawrence staff. There are more than 100 open spaces in both Topeka and Kansas City.
  3. Topeka is a state owned building with more than 100 spaces open. Lawrence is expensive (fifth highest in the state) rental property.
  4. Consolidating the Lawrence office achieves significant savings, $413,000 total.
  5. Shawnee County and Wyandotte County have higher number of children living in poverty, Douglas County, 19 percent; Shawnee County, 27 percent, and Wyandotte County, 31 percent.
  6. Douglas County is a relatively wealthy county with low case numbers per capita (per 10,000 Kansans): Lawrence 921; Ottawa, 1,453; Kansas City, 2,196; Overland Park, 595, and Leavenworth, 1,115.

Asked why Lawrence would be closed and not Overland Park, which has a much lower caseload per capita, Siedlecki and Haulmark said there would not be enough openings in nearby SRS offices to absorb the 200 SRS employees in Overland Park.

Siedlecki said he and Haulmark are in discussions with local officials to identify free office space in Lawrence to house a small number of SRS staff to assist individuals in accessing services.

They also said they will keep a small number of child protective service workers in Lawrence to respond to time-sensitive and emergency situations.

At a meeting Saturday, Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson said he was concerned about not having social workers on a timely basis to help in investigations of sexual abuse of a minor.

Haulmark said the closure of the Lawrence office won’t affect that. He said social workers in the field would continue to be available in those situations.

Siedlecki and Haulmark said they would continue meeting with city, county and state officials about the Lawrence situation, but wouldn’t go to the public meeting called by legislators on the issue.

The SRS officials also provided a sheet detailing savings from closing the Lawrence office. Of the $413,385 in annual savings, $331,875 came from the annual rental of two buildings.

The savings did take into account an additional $14,538 in extra travel expenses of SRS employees.

Siedlecki said there is room in nearby SRS offices to take in Lawrence’s 87 SRS employees. But he said some of those may choose to retire and then each of those positions will be reviewed to determine if they should be filled.

The other offices slated for closure over the next three months include Garnett, Coffeyville, McPherson, Marysville, Fort Scott, Pratt, Wellington and Lyndon.