(WICHITA, Kan.) — “We would have had to move back in with one of our families...if we were able. If not, we wouldn’t have had anywhere to go. It would have been a really bad situation.”
Twenty-two year-old Brandy Smith and her husband, Clint, receive help from Kansas’ social service agency, called Social and Rehabilitation Services or SRS.
SRS oversees programs that provide help to families like the Smiths with food stamps, cash assistance, health care and foster care. The services are for low income families, children, the elderly and disabled.
Governor Sam Brownback and the Kansas legislature made approximately $42 million in cuts to SRS funding this year.
Closing SRS Offices
On the day before the Fourth of July weekend, newly appointed SRS Secretary Rob Siedlecki announced SRS offices would close in nine cities: Coffeyville, Fort Scott, Garnett, Lawrence, Lyndon, Marysville, McPherson, Pratt, and Wellington. The decision means many people have to drive to other cities for services.
After the announcement, hundreds of people gathered in Lawrence to protest their local office closing and other cuts to the social services program.
“There are a lot of consumers and people with disabilities and elderly who cannot drive or get places,” said one protester. “We need to make sure they stay open.”
Both SRS employees and state legislators say there had been no warning about the decision to close the offices.
“There hasn’t been any transparency. There’s been no public input. Legislators in the affected areas found out about this from news media,” said Senate Minority Leader Anthony Hensley.
An SRS spokesperson says that’s “simply not so.”
“The ‘public input’ was the election and the subsequent decisions of the state Legislature, which were extensively covered by the media. This is a Democratic partisan temper tantrum you are reporting,” said SRS Director of Communications Angela de Rocha.
SRS Staff Changes
In June, Eyewitness News asked Secretary Siedlecki about the changes he’s making, including staffing at SRS. Siedlecki said he wasn’t sure how many people had been let go, but believed the number to be 15 to 20.
De Rocha says when the Secretary took office, 25 employees were let go. Twenty of those were unclassified. The other five were let go for cause, according to the spokesperson.
“On average, five classified employees a week are fired from SRS for cause, through appropriate procedures, again, in the context of more than 5,500 employees. None were, nor could have been, fired at will,” said de Rocha.
According to the Kansas Secretary of State’s office, “classified employees are part of the state's civil service system. They have certain rights and protections through that system, and are considered insulated from political and non-governmental pressures. Employees who serve in unclassified positions are generally appointed by elected officials or cabinet officers and serve at the pleasure of the official who appointed them. These positions do not have the protection of the civil service system..”
On June 8th, Eyewitness News submitted an open records request for the names and positions of SRS employees who have been fired and information about those hired to replace them. Governor Brownback’s office refused to release that information.
Documents from the Kansas Legislative Research Department show turnover at SRS of more than 75 employees in May. Eyewitness News asked SRS if that is a typical turnover rate. The Director of Communications said, “I don’t know.”
Some agencies that receive SRS funding say they have already been impacted.
“Preventative services, including Kansas Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Mental Health Association of South Central Kansas and programs designed to prevent juvenile delinquency, have seen funding cuts,” said Debbie Donaldson, Division Director of Human Services in Sedgwick County.
A lawmaker who did not want to be identified claims millions in funding has already been cut for care of the elderly, mentally and developmentally disabled, and for foster care placement.
The SRS spokesperson insists services for SRS clients will be not be affected.
“No benefits are being cut,” said de Rocha. “These people will continue to get the help they have been getting all along.”
Xochitl Hinojosa, a spokesperson with the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington D.C. confirms the DOJ is gathering input and reviewing funding cuts to SRS as possible violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The SRS spokesperson tells Eyewitness News she was not aware of that.
Siedlecki defends the changes he’s making at SRS, saying he puts efficiency as a top priority with taxpayer dollars.
“Every program grant, every contract we have… we want outcome measures to see if people are really being helped, not how many brochures were given out, not how many people were seen by a treatment person, but how many people got off of drugs, how many people got a job,” said Siedlecki.
With few details articulated by Secretary Siedlecki or Governor Brownback about the changes underway, 500,000 Kansans, who currently depend on SRS for disability services, cash assistance and food stamps, are waiting to hear how they will be affected.