WICHITA — The state of Kansas has notified the city of Wichita that its nine agencies that occupy the Finney State Office Building downtown won’t be renewing their leases after 20 years in the city-owned building.
“It raises a red flag,” says Rep. Jim Ward (D-Wichita). “I have a concern there is a history of the governor rewarding financial contributors with state contracts. I know he has contributors in Wichita that own (buildings) that fall into that category. … I don’t want that to be the reason we’re moving.”
Sherriene Jones-Sontag, a spokeswoman for the governor’s office, says Ward’s fears are unfounded.
“For Representative Ward to say that, what he said was inaccurate,” she says.
There are more than 700 state employees in the building, more than 550 of whom are with the state Department for Children and Families, which formerly was known as SRS. The other eight agencies are the Department for Aging and Disability Services, the Department of Revenue, the Kansas Human Rights Commission, the Department of Health and Environment, the Department of Administration, the Kansas Corporation Commission, the Office of the State Bank Commissioner and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.
“We consulted with our agency tenants,” says Chuck Knapp, a spokesman with the Department of Administration. “After visiting with those agencies, we just determined it would be in the best interest of those agencies and their clients to seek space elsewhere.”
Knapp says he can’t be more specific and that each agency will have to answer for itself.
A spokeswoman for the largest tenant couldn’t be reached for comment. A spokesman for another agency referred questions to Knapp.
“I would like them to be able to articulate why this is a good idea, and I haven’t heard any of that,” Ward says.
He says his other major concern is a move from the building will hurt the clients who use it.
Ward was a Wichita City Council member in 1991 when the city was investigating ways to stimulate economic development downtown and proposed a plan to help the state reduce expenses by consolidating numerous offices into the vacant building at 230 E. William, which previously was home to Macy’s. The following year, he was in the state Senate “where we in fact accepted the city’s offer to do that.”
In addition to being centrally located, Ward says the Finney building is close to the bus station, which many of the low-income visitors to the building use as their primary means of transportation.
Jones-Sontag says that while “the governor’s office is not involved when agencies determine they need a new location,” she knows there will be a due diligence process to make sure adequate spaces can be found at fair market prices.
“I want to have a conversation that we’re not saving a penny today but cost the program long term,” Ward says. “The big thing about this is this is a win-win for both the state and the city. … It has been a relationship that’s been mutually beneficial for years. … It’s also the ripple effect on clients.”
Ward says he wonders “if this is just a bargaining position to drive the cost down” for the state.
Knapp says the city already presented “a very aggressive lease renewal offer” but that plans still call for the state to vacate the building when the lease is up on Sept. 30, 2014.
City spokesman Dale Goter says discussions have been ongoing since last year.
“Various scenarios have been explored, and the city is continuing its discussion with the state,” Goter says.
It appears the state is not talking back, though.
“Well, I certainly wouldn’t comment on any ongoing negotiations, but at this point, we’re not negotiating with the city,” Knapp says.
He says the state is now on the hunt for new space or spaces.
“We’re looking for the best location for the agencies and their customers,” he says. “We’re just going to have to do the research.”