There was “no politics” involved in the decision to close the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services office in Lawrence, SRS Secretary Robert Siedlecki told a group of Journal-World editors and reporters Monday.
It was simply the hard reality of having to satisfy a $42 million budget cut approved by the Kansas Legislature. Siedlecki said he didn’t fight the size of the cut during the legislative session because he thought the agency he has led for less than six months should do its share to help cut the state budget.
Siedlecki and the two aides that accompanied him brought along the facts and figures that they said justify the closing of the Lawrence office, but for the people of Lawrence and Douglas County, the closure decision and the process by which that decision was reached still don’t add up.
Initially, SRS said it wouldn’t eliminate any of the 87 positions at the Lawrence office. However, on Tuesday, Siedlecki promised only that there would be “no layoffs.” If Lawrence employees quit rather than move to another office, their positions might be eliminated unless they are considered “critical.”
There will be no reduction in local services, Siedlecki and his aides said. The county will continue to be served full-time by SRS workers that handle child in need of care cases. If someone offers SRS some free office space, they will try to have caseworkers available locally a couple of days a week. It’s not unusual, they say, for local entities to provide free space to SRS.
And they hope more people will use the Internet to access services. Statewide, only about 16 percent of SRS services currently are accessed on the Internet, but they want that to increase.
They say the are working with local “stakeholders” like Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center to help ease the transition. Have agencies like Bert Nash and the Lawrence Community Shelter expressed concern about the added responsibility their agencies will have to help clients access SRS services? No, we haven’t really heard that, the SRS officials said. That message came through loud and clear at a public meeting Monday night at Plymouth Congregational Church, but no state SRS officials attended.
The process by which this decision was reached is frustrating to many local residents. Siedlecki said his office didn’t seek local input during the decision-making process because legislators and others across the state would have risen up in defense of their local offices. That probably was a safe assumption, considering that more than 500 people attended Monday night’s meeting organized by local legislators.
So rather than seeking input from local officials or perhaps considering a more moderate approach to downsizing the Lawrence office, SRS officials simply decided to announce the closing and deal with the details later. Siedlecki said on Monday that “we really want to work with the community to make sure that we do have adequate coverage.”
It’s unfortunate that state SRS officials didn’t do a better job of working with the community before this decision was handed down. We hope they will try harder in the future.
According to Siedlecki, there is no possibility that the state will reconsider the closing of the Lawrence SRS office. If the decision stands, local officials and nonprofit agencies will have little choice but to try to work with state officials to minimize the negative impact on Lawrence and its residents. They currently do an outstanding job of providing and coordinating needed services for local residents who face a number of physical, mental and financial challenges. That job apparently will become far more difficult in the months to come.