TOPEKA — State senators grilled the Kansas Bioscience Authority on Tuesday about how it is spending taxpayer money, asking how much staff members are paid and how much the group has spent on its Olathe offices.
KBA president and CEO Tom Thornton took some tough questions in light of recent comments by a group of Wichita scientists that the authority is backing away from a promise to give it $20 million over five years. The KBA says its board of directors never approved a $20 million commitment to the group working on a new medical implant industry.
Members of the Senate's commerce committee asked Thornton for a breakdown of staff salaries as well as who got paid what to build KBA's offices.
After the hearing, the head of the committee, Sen. Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, said "we want to make sure they are using taxpayer dollars wisely." She said she is concerned about the group spending $10.8 million to build its office. She said her calculations break down to $278 per square foot.
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"That's a lot," she said. More important, Wagle, said, "nowhere did I see where they were authorized to use the money for bricks and mortar. He disagrees. That's the Kansas taxpayer paying for that building."
Thornton, who earns $265,000 a year and is eligible for a performance bonus, told legislators he would get back to them with the information they requested. Wagle said the committee would hold another hearing on the KBA.
"I think the Kansas taxpayer, in times like this, when we're very short on money, we want every agency accountable for every dime spent. We'll know more after we get all these documents from him," Wagle said.
The KBA told The Eagle that its staff salaries total just more than $2 million a year. Salaries for staff other than Thornton range from $42,800 to $175,000.
The KBA has come under some fire from the Center of Innovation for Biomaterials in Orthopaedic Research, or CIBOR. Paul Wooley, the chief scientist with the Wichita group, has said the full commitment of $20 million is vital to the group's future.
State legislators say the scientists have told them privately and publicly that the KBA has not given them the money it promised and that the lack of money is damaging the scientists' ability to invent a new medical implant industry and create jobs and revenue for the state. The KBA recently announced it was giving CIBOR another $1.5 million on top of about $4 million it has given the group since 2009.
Janice Katterhenry, chief financial and chief operating officer for the KBA, said in an e-mail Tuesday to The Eagle that "as CIBOR builds its capacity under its new CEO and achieves results, we intend to accelerate its progress with additional investments. We started the centers of innovation program and want nothing more than to see CIBOR and the other centers succeed in advancing our state's national bioscience leadership."
Asked whether the KBA was concerned about legislative support, Katterhenry said "the KBA is always communicating with key stakeholders, especially the Legislature. We take great care in conducting our activities in an open and transparent manner."
The KBA was created by the Legislature in 2004 to collect tax money from the health care industry and use it to finance startup bioscience operations.
Thornton told committee members that for each $1 invested in the authority, $9.41 has been returned in the form of jobs and capital expenditures.
He also said the state ranks fifth in the nation for biotechnology.
Sen. Ty Masterson, R-Andover, asked Thornton for more information about the rankings, saying he had seen other publications that ranked Kansas lower.
Masterson has said that he plans to introduce a bill that if passed would provide direct funding to the Wichita scientists.
Wooley and Rich Sullivan, CEO of CIBOR, said they had no comment on Tuesday's hearing, which they did not attend.
The KBA told The Eagle on Tuesday that its Venture Accelerator building is situated on 92 acres of land donated by the city of Olathe. The Kansas Bioscience Park is a partnership between Olathe, the KBA and Kansas State University. The building includes laboratory space the KBA can lease to startup bioscience businesses. So far it has leased 1,700 of the 12,000 square feet of laboratory space. The KBA said the cost of the Venture Accelerator building, about $10.8 million, is lower than original estimates and the environmental design of the building would save money on utilities over the long term.