Though the Brownback administration has been able to articulate some legitimate concerns about the city-owned Finney State Office Building, they still don’t justify vacating the building and abandoning a 20-year city-state partnership – especially when the city has offered a $6 million renovation and a deep discount on rent.
Nothing that Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, saw during a Tuesday tour with other officials convinced him that the state must move. Most of the problems cited, such as the need for a large lobby to accommodate clients of the Kansas Department for Children and Families, were “all things that can be done with $6 million to $10 million of capital improvement,” Ward later told The Eagle editorial board.
Theresa Freed, a DCF spokeswoman, recently told the Topeka Capital-Journal that “crime is certainly a concern. Just this summer a staff member was attacked with a knife as she was leaving the building to go to her vehicle. Transients often gather in the parking garage where state staff have their vehicles.”
But Mayor Carl Brewer has said statistics for the area do not show an “unusual volume” of crime, and, in any case, the city has offered to work with the state to address security concerns.
Then there is the Kansas Corporation Commission’s stated need for a facility that can withstand an EF-5 tornado “because it has some sensitive paper files that haven’t yet been digitized,” according to the Capital-Journal. Wouldn’t that be true of every public agency and private business in Kansas?
As Ward argues, the abrupt (and unexplained) resignation Monday of Diane Bidwell, the head of DCF’s regional office, affords the state an opportunity to rethink the decision not to renew the lease when it expires in September 2014. Bidwell had been a prime proponent of abandoning the Finney building and relocating her agency’s more than 500 employees to an unidentified site.
It’s disappointing that Ward’s position seemingly isn’t shared by Republicans in the Wichita legislative delegation, whose focus should be what’s good for Wichita and state taxpayers as much as for the Brownback administration.
Rep. Steve Brunk, R-Wichita, told the Capital-Journal that the building is “functionally obsolete.” Brunk, who chairs the Joint Committee on State Building Construction, also said: “Even if they gave us the building, it just doesn’t work.”
Another sign the move doesn’t seem to be about money: The state is paying $14 a foot for the new driver’s license office in Derby, more than the $11 a foot the state has been paying at the Finney building and a long way from the new $6-a-foot rate Wichita is offering on a new lease.
“I think money should matter,” Ward told the editorial board. Surely most Kansans would agree.
Bidwell’s exit should open the door to saving this mutually beneficial relationship between the state and its largest city.