In the wake of criticism from state legislators, members of the Kansas Bioscience Authority board defended the agency’s spending Tuesday.
Over the past few weeks, state senators have taken aim at how the KBA is spending the $581 million the state plans to set aside over 15 years to fuel the bioscience industry.
On Tuesday at a board meeting in Washington, CEO and President Tom Thornton acknowledged those concerns.
According to The Wichita Eagle, the Senate Commerce Committee has raised questions about KBA:
l Spending $10.8 million to build a venture accelerator, which will house start-up bioscience companies.
l Spending $20,750 to advertise with a trade magazine that then ranked Kansas as the fifth in the county for biotechnology.
l Spending more than $2 million in employee salaries.
Last week The Wichita Eagle reported that 12 of the agency’s 21 employees have salaries of more than $100,000, and a total of $106,000 was paid in bonuses to 12 employees other than Thornton. As for Thornton, his salary was reported at $265,000 plus a $100,000 bonus.
Members of the State Commerce Committee called the salaries “shocking” and “exorbitant,” according to the Associated Press.
On Tuesday, Thornton defended those salaries to the board.
“To get to the outcomes we have accomplished requires a highly qualified and exceptional staff,” Thornton said.
Kansas State University President Kirk Schulz noted that salaries are a favorite target of the news media and urged the KBA to find “some way to defend” them.
More than a year ago, the board hired a consultant to evaluate the agency’s salaries.
“We wanted to make sure that we didn’t suddenly find out that we were so far out of line that we (lost) a couple of top talents because we weren’t appropriately appreciating their work,” KBA Board Chairman John Carlin said.
Since there are so few organizations like the KBA, it was hard to find peer organizations to compare salaries, but consultants found that the salaries were in the 75th percentile, Carlin said.
“You get what you pay for,” Carlin said. “And if we are in the middle of investing half a billion dollars, do we want to go cheap in terms of staff?”
Board member Bill Sanford noted that compared to the private sector, employee salaries are well below average.
And board member Ray Smilor defended the state’s fifth-placed ranking in bioscience.
“I think it’s remarkable we have gotten the national recognition in being a leader in science in the 21st century. I’m not sure that there is any other ranking other than basketball that Kansas has gotten that has brought this national,” he said.
On Friday, KBA staff and board members will return to the legislature to discuss the agency’s spending.