Kathleen McGee, a Lawrence woman with numerous disabilities, said Monday she owed her life to the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.
One of more than 600 people who attended a public meeting at Plymouth Congregational Church, 925 Vt., McGee said she didn’t understand the mindset of Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration, which has announced that it plans to close the Lawrence SRS office.
McGee said she read the comments of SRS Secretary Robert Siedlecki Jr., who said closing the Lawrence office was necessary for budget reasons, although, he added, it was a difficult decision. He compared it to asking a family to sacrifice a child.
“This is America,” McGee said. “And this is Kansas. We don’t sacrifice our children. We help them.”
Her comments were echoed repeatedly in a sometimes emotional meeting as people who are served by SRS, their advocates and numerous others said the planned shutdown of one of the largest SRS offices in the state was needless and senseless.
Listening to the speakers were Douglas County legislators, city and county officials, law enforcement officers and clergy. No one from SRS was there — officials and staff were invited to the meeting but declined to attend.
Rep. Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, said the comments would be compiled and delivered to Brownback and his staff to try to persuade them to change their decision.
“Facts don’t lie, and I believe the facts are on our side in keeping this office open,” he said.
Earlier Monday, Siedlecki, meeting with reporters and editors at the Lawrence Journal-World, repeated his contention that those needing SRS services in Lawrence will be able to access them online or travel to Topeka, Kansas City, Overland Park or Ottawa, once the Lawrence office is closed.
To the folks meeting at Plymouth Congregational, that was nonsensical. Many of the people receiving assistance don’t have dependable transportation or the ability to travel, they said.
And many of the services that SRS offers, such as medical assistance, cannot be accessed on the Internet.
Retired District Court Judge Jean Shepherd said the biggest loss would be the loss of relationships between SRS and Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, Cottonwood Inc., school officials, law enforcement and others who all work together as a team to help people.
“We will get some new social worker in Wyandotte County who doesn’t know anyone in our community,” she said. It will result in the wrong placements of children in foster care and failures in getting children out of dangerous situations, she said.
Others said the loss of SRS will increase the strain on already overburdened local agencies and nonprofits, diverting them from their missions and resulting in fewer people receiving help. That will lead to an increase in crime and more disasters, they said.
Marion Dyer of Lawrence said the Brownback administration’s priorities were out of whack because he is advocating tax cuts while cutting services to needy Kansans.
“This pain we are feeling now will never go away,” she said.
Siedlecki has said the closure of the Lawrence SRS office will save about $413,000. He said the agency had to cut $42 million including $1 million in administrative costs under the budget approved by Republicans in the Legislature and Brownback, also a Republican. Eight smaller SRS offices are also being targeted for closure.
Siedlecki said SRS would continue working with local officials to see about getting free office space for a much smaller SRS operation. The current office has 87 positions, and SRS officials have said those employees can be absorbed in neighboring cities.
But many at the meeting said the move out of Lawrence would prove more expensive to the state in the long run through increased crime and public safety costs.
“The welfare of our community is in peril,” said the Rev. Peter Luckey, senior pastor of Plymouth Congregational. He said even though the state faces tough economic times, the problems shouldn’t be “placed on the backs of the people who are the most vulnerable among us.”