Lawrence City Commission approves funding for SRS office

Lawrence city commissioners on Tuesday agreed to pay half of a $450,000 local package to keep the state’s SRS office in the community, but commissioners bit their tongues while approving the unique deal.

“I’m really uncomfortable with the precedent here,” said Mayor Aron Cromwell. “Local governments are being asked to pay for a state office, but I’m not going to sit up here and put ideology in front of people.”

Under the deal, the city will pay $112,500 in both 2012 and 2013 in order to help the state offset its costs to continue operating the SRS offices near 19th and Delaware streets. The county will pay an equal amount in those two years. Tuesday’s unanimous approval sends the deal to Douglas County commissioners, who are expected to approve it today.

The deal staves off a July decision by the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services to close the Lawrence office, which employs 87 people and serves several thousands of clients per month.

City commissioners on Tuesday said they and their colleagues at the county were forced to act quickly to make a deal. According to several commissioners, furniture at the SRS office was being marked for moving on Friday, and movers were delayed while negotiations between local officials and the state took place.

“I was convinced that when those desks and pieces of furniture got in the moving truck, SRS was not coming back to Lawrence,” City Commissioner Hugh Carter said. “We didn’t have the luxury of waiting for others to change this decision in Topeka.”

Erika Dvorske, president and CEO of the United Way of Douglas County, urged commissioners to treat the deal like an economic development investment. In addition to keeping the 87 employees in the city, she said her office estimated that Lawrence residents would lose out on $2.4 million worth of food stamp assistance by not having an office located locally. That estimate was based on the belief that about 20 percent of the current food stamp recipients would not be able to keep up with the reporting requirements of the program if the office were in Topeka or Kansas City.

Longtime City Commissioner Mike Amyx said he struggled with whether to support the deal.

“In all my years, I never thought about having to deal with an issue quite like this,” Amyx said. “This has been a tough one. We are asked to make decisions about all sorts of things, but this one really came down to being about people’s lives.”

There is a chance that city and county commissioners may not have to pay the entire $450,000 to the state. The agreement has a provision that if the legislature provides funding to keep the Lawrence office open, the city and county are no longer obligated to pay.

State Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, said after Tuesday’s meeting that she has some hope that legislators will consider the issue when the session begins in January.

“I think there is going to be considerable concern about transferring state costs to the local level,” said Francisco, who supports the local deal as a means to keep the office open. “I think many legislators will understand that concern and try to address it.”