Tonight’s meeting on SRS office closure likely to touch on many issues

Tonight’s meeting to discuss the recent decision by the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services to shut down its Lawrence office will likely touch on several changes at SRS under Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration.

The meeting is scheduled to start at 7 p.m. at Plymouth Congregational Church, 925 Vt. The meeting has been arranged by local legislators and is free and open to the public. Lawrence leaders are urging people to attend.

The immediate concern is the announcement by SRS Secretary Robert Siedlecki Jr. to close nine SRS offices, including Lawrence’s, which is by far the largest. Brownback and Siedlecki say the closures are needed to cut costs and that Lawrence clients can access services online or go to offices in Topeka, Overland Park and Ottawa. Advocates for the needy say this is not reasonable.

And legislators have voiced numerous concerns about Siedlecki’s handling of the state welfare agency since he was picked by Brownback. Siedlecki came to Kansas after having worked as chief of staff for the Florida Department of Health. He also had also worked in the U.S. Justice and U.S. Health and Human Service departments under President George W. Bush.

During the recently completed legislative session, some legislators were so concerned with what Siedlecki was doing that they put in the appropriations bill a provision that SRS report quarterly to the Legislature.
Brownback vetoed that provision.

In his veto message, Brownback stated: “I have directed my staff to maintain open lines of communication with the Legislature, instructing them to operate transparently and provide timely information on our policies, ongoing progress, and the challenges we must meet.

“The language contained in this provision would place an unfair and unnecessary administrative burden on one state agency, so I have vetoed it.”

Now some legislators say their suspicions have been confirmed by recent changes at SRS, which include the proposed office closures, layoff of experienced staff and restructuring of the department to include a faith-based office. And, they say, there have been no open lines of communication from SRS.

House Minority Leader Paul Davis of Lawrence said he attended a tour with Siedlecki last month at the Lawrence SRS office and Siedlecki gave no indication that closures were being considered.

During the legislative session, Davis said, SRS officials made no attempt to inform legislators about the impact of proposed budget cuts. “They haven’t been good advocates for the people that they serve. They seem to welcome the cuts, and that is a strong departure,” he said.

State Rep. Barbara Ballard, D-Lawrence, who serves on the House Appropriations Committee and the social services budget panel said she heard from SRS about the office closure just hours before the news was officially released.

And legislators said they have received no detailed information from SRS on what went into the decision to close these specific offices.

Brownback has stood by his secretary. After Siedlecki was confirmed by the Senate, Brownback said of Siedlecki, “He understands the severe budget challenges Kansas faces. He will work to improve the delivery of our health services programs to our state’s most vulnerable in a cost effective way.”