Politics & Government

Privatization moved state workers to unsecured office where shooting occurred

Workers at the Wichita tax office where an employee was shot Tuesday were moved out of a secured state office building into an unsecured storefront about three years ago, as part of Gov. Sam Brownback’s program of privatizing office space.

A state senator and the head of the state employee union said they think Tuesday’s shooting probably would have been avoided had the Department of Revenue tax office still been housed in the now-vacant Finney State Office Building downtown instead of a strip mall at 21st and Amidon.

“I’m mad about this shooting,” said Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita. “I think this is ridiculous that we’re allowing guns on college campuses but we’re requiring them and other city buildings to have metal detectors, but then we privatize and we’re allowing just an open house (at the Department of Revenue office). It’s a madhouse.”

“I’m sure they would have been more secured at the Finney State Office Building,” said Robert Choromanski, executive director of the Kansas Organization of State Employees. “There were guards, there was protection.”

He said there was no protection Tuesday when tax compliance agent Cortney Holloway was shot at the Revenue Department office. Police later arrested excavation contractor Ricky Todd Wirths, 51, of Wichita, who was facing seizure of his assets over nearly $400,000 in outstanding tax warrants.

Rachel Whitten, a spokeswoman for Brownback and the Department of Revenue, said the agency is taking steps to secure its offices in the wake of the shooting.

“Instead of engaging in speculation, we are reviewing agency-wide security procedures and policies already in place,” she said. “We have always been mindful of security, and the track record of employee and customer safety with zero incidents up until the unique shooting event involving our KDOR tax agent demonstrates that.”

Whitten said she did not know whether a security review was done when the tax office moved to its current location. That happened before she and Revenue Secretary Sam Williams came to the agency, she said.

Cutting the number of public buildings and renting from private landlords has been a oft-stated goal of the Brownback administration, as the governor sought to streamline government and cut costs. The governor is a philosophical proponent of shifting government functions to the private sector.

Until 2014, Wichita employees of the Department of Revenue’s tax compliance unit were housed with eight other state agencies at the Finney Building.

There, they were under the security umbrella of armed guards protecting the Department for Children and Families. DCF, which had 550 of the Finney Building’s 700 employees, maintains a security presence to protect workers and clients from people upset over child custody decisions and other emotional issues.

In addition to the DCF guards, the Finney Building was also the regional headquarters for law-enforcement officers of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.

Choromanski said workers in the tax compliance office face much the same kind of security challenges as DCF employees – especially disgruntled and angry people who are having their cars, boats, homes and money seized to pay back taxes.

The security guards and officers of a large state office building would have been a major deterrent to anyone contemplating shooting a tax agent, Chroromanski said.

“Somebody would have been, ‘Oh, I don’t think I’m going to get away with this. I’m going to get killed or shot,” he said.

But when the agencies left the state office building, DCF went south and the tax office went north.

The tax compliance officers were moved to a storefront office, adjacent to the driver’s license bureau at Twin Lakes Shopping Center. Built in 1964 as the city’s first suburban mall, it was later converted to a strip center.

The building security went with DCF. Its new office has a security desk in the lobby, staffed with two armed guards and an off-duty police officer to maintain order.

The KBI regional office moved to a new Kansas Highway Patrol station in Kechi.

“Over time, agencies expressed a desire to find other space in Wichita that better suited their business models, including security, and initiated searches in the community,” said John Millburn, spokesman for the Department of Administration. “Those agencies began moving out and the Department of Administration vacated the building on (Aug. 31, 2015) after all state agencies were able to find new locations.”

The city of Wichita, which owned the building, offered to make $6 million in improvements and cut rent to keep the state offices there. But state officials declined to cooperate on renovation and turned down the offer of decreased rent.

House Minority Leader Jim Ward, who fought to keep the state offices in the Finney Building, said he couldn’t say whether staying would have prevented the shooting. But it had security and police presence and people were required to sign in.

“We shouldn’t need a tragedy for the governor to do a security risk assessment,” said Ward, a Democrat who is running for governor. “And it should have been done at the time when he moved people out of the state office building and moved them all over town and the county.”

Faust-Goudeau said she finds it ironic that employee safety was one of the reasons the state cited for leaving the Finney Building.

She said she got a close look at the Revenue Department’s paired drivers’ license and tax offices last month during a lengthy wait to renew her driver’s license. People were sitting on the floor and others were camped out in their cars in the parking lot, she said.

“I tell you that place is a zoo,” she said. “Anybody could walk in and out and do whatever they pleased. I did not see one security person there, that whole hour and a half I was there. It was chaotic.

“I definitely think that perhaps if we had security there or some other type of check in, that perhaps this shooting wouldn’t have occurred, or at least there would have been somebody else there to kind of handle things.”

Related stories from Wichita Eagle