It is becoming increasingly apparent that officials of the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services hadn’t done their homework before deciding to close the Lawrence SRS office.
Secretary Rob Seidlecki and his staff owe it to Lawrence and the state to revisit that decision based on real, accurate figures of how much the closing will save the state.
Several pieces of information that have come to light in the last several days should call into question Seidlecki’s leadership and competence as the SRS chief.
• On Monday, the Journal-World obtained a memo from a Kansas City SRS official indicating that Lawrence SRS workers could not be transferred to the Topeka office because it would be unmanageable to have staff members from the Kansas City SRS district working in an office in the Topeka SRS district. On Tuesday, another Kansas City SRS official sent another memo saying Topeka was still an option for displaced Lawrence staff members. However, according to yet another SRS spokeswoman, this one in Topeka, the question of whether Lawrence cases could be transferred to Topeka “is still undergoing review.”
Now it looks as if Lawrence workers can move to Topeka but, if they do, they may not be able to take their Lawrence cases with them. So who will handle those cases? Apparently Seidlecki didn’t even talk to his own staff people enough before announcing the Lawrence closure to figure out how this part of the transition would work.
• About half of the $400,000 the state SRS office said it would save from closing the Lawrence office was federal reimbursement funding that now will be lost, so the state savings is down to about $200,000. An SRS spokeswoman tried to soften that blow by saying, “It’s all taxpayer money, so we are saving money.” Yes, it is federal taxpayer money, some of which came from Kansas taxpayers, that now will go to states other than Kansas where it was supporting a key SRS office in Lawrence.
• State Rep. Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, points out that while Seidlecki is closing SRS offices across the state on the pretext of cutting administrative costs, he has created several new high-level administrative positions on his own staff. The salaries for the people filling new positions for a chief of staff and a deputy secretary handling faith-based initiatives alone add up to just under $200,000 — the entire amount that it now appears will be saved by closing the Lawrence office.
• Among the greatest local concerns about closing the Lawrence office is how to provide SRS coverage for child-in-need-of-care cases. Although state officials have offered assurances that those workers would be available whenever needed, Douglas County District Attorney Charles Branson reported at a recent public meeting that the state SRS office had no plan for how that would be accomplished.
In addition to all of these factors, uncertainty remains about whether the state will be able to break its lease on two buildings at 19th and Delaware streets. State SRS officials say their attorneys have told them that a “financial hardship” clause in the lease will allow them to break it. However, even if that is the case, that clause may be overridden by a four-year “guaranteed lease period” that won’t run out until December 2012.
Local government or nonprofit entities may be willing to offer money or other benefits as part of a negotiation to save the local SRS office, but the inept handling of this matter by state officials raises questions about whether local taxpayers should offer such a bailout.
The better option would be for Gov. Sam Brownback and Seidlecki to simply admit that the decision to close the Lawrence office was based on faulty and incomplete information and should be reversed.