The Utah Department of Social Services will assess the cost involved in keeping part of a district welfare office open to client services, while moving ahead with the proposed merger of two district offices.

Representatives of community groups and the department met with Reed Searle, aide to Gov. Norm Bangerter, to discuss the merger of the 2N district office, 554 S. Third East, and the 2B office, 2835 S. Main, into one facility at the ExpoMart. The two offices serve about 6,100 clients.Opponents of the consolidation said the move would leave inadequate service at the southern end of the valley, despite the fact the caseload there is growing rapidly. They also said that lack of adequate parking, increased travel, the presence of armed security guards at the ExpoMart and the distance from a food pantry that serves 2B clients will act as barriers to public assistance access.

"I invite you to go down and drive around that building," said Steve Johnson of Utahns Against Hunger. "It's not a user-friendly building."

Norman Angus, director of the Department of Social Services, said the move will actually provide better service to clients. The new location, he said, is much closer to many other services, referrals can still be made to the food pantry, and bus service in the downtown area is much better.

"The issue with the 2835 S. Main office is we have to have more space anyway," Angus said. "A person with a wheelchair can't even get into an interview room; it has to happen in the hallway. The interview, client flow and ability to handle the caseload will be much better."

Lynn Samsel, who manages the 2B and 2N offices, said the new location has more parking than the old. He assured advocates that clients who use the facilities for more than the 30 minutes posted on parking signs will receive validations "at no cost to client or state." The new facility was selected in part because it can accommodate the Public Assistance Case Management Information System, the new computer system that will go on-line statewide this year. Renovation for computer system, Samsel said, is being done by the owners as part of the lease agreement.

Jeff Fox, a low-income advocate, suggested that client services be maintained at the old South Main office, and institutional services be transferred to the ExpoMart because the lease is already signed. But Samsel said client services must be linked to the computer system, and the old office will not accommodate it without costly renovation.

"Clients have a closer proximity even at the new location than any other office in the state," Samsel said. "We're within the law, this is the most cost-effective, viable thing we can do at this point and there is, frankly, no issue here."

Joe Duke-Rosati, Community Action Program, told the department, "If the move takes place and problems start to arise, we intend to be around. We have talked to the American Civil Liberties Union, and if folks are denied access to a program because of this move, we will litigate."

Although no decision has been made, the department will examine whether redesigning service district boundaries will help clients at the southernmost end of the district. When they get their next assistance check, clients will be asked for an opinion on what location would be most convenient for them.