A state legislator said Tuesday he plans to ask the Kansas Department for Children and Families to table plans to move its offices out of a Wichita downtown building after the agency’s local leader suddenly resigned this week.
Rep. Jim Ward, D-Wichita, toured the Finney State Office Building on Tuesday to give officials a chance to show why the agency should leave the city-owned building at 230 E. William where DCF and other agencies have been since 1994.
“They didn’t give me a smoking gun reason that made me say, ‘Oh, I see now why you need to move,’” Ward said.
The tour was set up before Diane Bidwell, the head of DCF’s regional office, resigned Monday.
Nine state agencies gave the city notice earlier this year that the state wouldn’t be renewing its lease for the building when it expires in September 2014. DCF is by far the largest agency, with about 550 of the more than 700 state employees who work in the converted department store.
“I’d like to get the decision delayed,” Ward said, “so we can get some fresh eyes looking at this. From what I can tell, (Bidwell) was the driving force for the agencies leaving.”
Theresa Freed, spokeswoman for DCF, who was among the officials on the tour, said Bidwell’s resignation will not impede the planned move. State officials have previously said abandoning the Finney building was a foregone conclusion.
Bidwell voluntarily resigned after leading the office for 2 1/2 years, Freed said. Earlier this month, the state began an investigation into the Wichita office, the KHI News Service reported, amid complaints it was guiding children at risk of entering the foster care system to FaithBuilders, a Wichita nonprofit.
Asked if the investigation led to her resignation, Freed said, “Because it was voluntarily done, she didn’t state it was done for this reason or for that. It’s just that she decided it was time to go.”
An attorney for FaithBuilders told The Eagle on Monday night that Bidwell’s resignation shouldn’t have an impact on the work the group does.
Ward, who is on the Joint Committee on State Building Construction, said Tuesday’s tour of the building was set up with state officials before Bidwell’s resignation.
“It was a coincidence,” he said. “I have not been a big fan of this move.”
He noted that many of DCF’s concerns – such as a bigger and more secure lobby – can be addressed.
In a Sept. 9 letter from Mayor Carl Brewer to Gov. Sam Brownback, the city offered to cut DCF’s lease rate from $11 a square foot to $6 for half the space it currently has. The reduced space is at DCF’s request. The city also offered to make a $6 million investment in improvements.
Ward said it will cost taxpayers three times as much in rent to go elsewhere, plus additional costs associated with the move.
State officials have said the move is about more than costs and that the building doesn’t fit its needs. Concerns about safety around the building were also raised by the state, though Brewer has said the city would address that issue.
At least two of the state agencies in the Finney building have talked about moving to the former Ryan International Airlines building at 266 N. Main. DCF is still considering various options in the Wichita area, Freed said.