Douglas County officials on Tuesday will hear from local agencies on how much money it will cost them if the Lawrence office of the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services is shut down.
Gov. Sam Brownback and SRS Secretary Robert Siedlecki Jr. have said the Lawrence office and eight others must be closed as a cost-cutting move.
Siedlecki has said eliminating the Lawrence office — the largest of the planned closures — will save the state $413,000; most of that is in rent that the state pays.
But local officials have said the long-term costs — both in dollars and human suffering — will far outweigh the savings.
For example, Patricia Roach Smith, chief operations officer for the Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, said without the SRS office in Lawrence it will be extremely difficult to help people with severe mental illnesses or the homeless to access food stamps, general assistance, or vocational-rehabilitation.
Brownback and Siedlecki have said people will be able to obtain services by traveling to SRS offices in Topeka, Ottawa or Overland Park. They can also use the Internet or telephone, they have said.
But Smith said that is not going to work out.
“My fear is that people will not be able to get to outlying offices. Their transportation system is fragile at best,” she said. “I’m worried that people will give up.”
She said Bert Nash will do what it can to fill the gap, but state funding to mental health centers has been cut drastically in the past several years.
In addition, Lawrence school board members said they were concerned that the lack of a local SRS office would decrease the response time in child abuse cases and increase the process time for accessing medical care.
“There already are proximity issues involving the SRS Family Preservation program,” the school board said in a letter to Brownback. “When a family is assigned an SRS work from Lenexa, as opposed to Lawrence, it’s more difficult to receive face-to-face services, even in crisis situations. A school social worker recently stepped in to assist a family living in an abandoned mobile home because the Lenexa SRS Family Preservation worker was not scheduled to be in Lawrence that day.”
Lawrence School Supt. Rick Doll told school board members, “Without people here locally, we believe we will see a significant deterioration of services for the community.”
Douglas County commissioners have invited local agencies, such as non-profits and law enforcement, to testify Tuesday on what the SRS closure would do to their operations. That meeting begins at 9 a.m. at the county courthouse, 11th and Massachusetts street.
“Since so little is known about the actual cost of this closure, we wanted to spend some time hearing from the agencies and what their thoughts are on what the costs will be to try to fill in the gaps,” said Commissioner Nancy Thellman.
During public meetings last week, attended by more than 1,000 people, there had been talk among some in the community that perhaps local governmental entities could take over from the state the rental cost to keep open the SRS office.
Thellman said local officials need more information about the impact of closing the SRS office.
“Before we can talk about possible solutions, we feel like we need real information,” she said.
“It’s likely that the state’s effort to make their budget better, may very well make our budget much worse,” she said.
County Administrator Craig Weinaug said, “We need to assess what the cost impacts are on the local entities.
“It would seem to be a relevant consideration for the state to consider as a part of their closing decision. Hopefully that information will be helpful as they hopefully evaluate whether this would be a good decision for the Kansas taxpayer,” he said.
Since July 1, when Siedlecki announced the Lawrence closure, local officials have been working on ways to try to reverse the decision.
On Monday, city and county officials asked Brownback to reconsider the planned closure.
In a letter, written on behalf of the Lawrence city commission and Douglas County commissioners, officials say that many will lose SRS services and already-strained agencies will be further strained.
“We write specifically to request complete reconsideration of the closure,” says the letter signed by Lawrence Mayor Aron Cromwell and Jim Flory, chair of the Douglas County commissioners.
“It is imperative that the Department not only maintain services in our community, but that those service be provided by keeping the existing office intact rather than simply providing a presence in Lawrence, or expecting our residents to travel to other SRS regional offices to obtain services,” the letter said.
Brownback’s office said the governor would review the letter and respond to the officials.