TOPEKA, Kan. — The top social services official in Kansas is stepping down after less than a year in office, Gov. Sam Brownback's office announced Thursday, ending a tenure marked by controversy over administrative decisions and the governor's policies.
Brownback said Social and Rehabilitation Services Secretary Rob Siedlecki is leaving the administration, effective Dec. 31. Siedlecki has held the job since January, when the Republican governor took office.
Some legislators, particularly Democrats, began criticizing Siedlecki even before he was confirmed in late March. One issue was his reorganization of top SRS management and another was the administration's pursuit of faith-based social services initiatives.
Siedlecki had previously served as a high-ranking Florida Department of Health official and in the U.S. Justice and Health and Human Services departments under Republican President George W. Bush. Brownback said Siedlecki is returning to Florida to be closer to his family and take a job with the state there.
In a statement, the governor thanked Siedlecki for his service. The SRS secretary said he'd promised to spend a year with the administration to "transform" his department into a more efficient and effective agency.
Among his accomplishments, he listed initiating aggressive anti-fraud efforts and promoting adoption. SRS has estimated that changes in eligibility requirements for programs announced in September — designed in part to combat fraud but also to encourage participants to look for work — could save the state $15 million a year.
"While I am returning to my home state of Florida, Kansas and Kansans will have special places in my heart," Siedlecki said in a statement. "Kansas hospitality is real."
But Siedlecki has sometimes received cool — and even hostile — receptions from legislative committees. Democrats have strongly criticized him, but some Republicans also have questioned his decisions and public statements.
The Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services is among the state's largest agencies, with 5,500 employees and a budget of more than $1.7 billion. SRS also has five hospitals for the mentally ill and developmentally disabled, and it administers cash assistance for poor Kansans, oversees the foster care system for abused and neglected children and administers substance abuse programs.
But Brownback is proposing significant changes for the agency under a plan he's outlined for overhauling the state's Medicaid program, which overs medical care for needy Kansans. SRS would become the Department for Children and Family Services, adding programs for child care and foster home licensing, pregnancy maintenance and prevention programs and juvenile justice grants.
In November, several Republican legislators criticized moving the juvenile justice programs to SRS, and one suggested the idea hadn't been properly vetted, even as Siedlecki touted it as necessary to bring all issues dealing with children and families under one agency.
And the same month, a legislative committee questioned him over comments attributed to him questioning whether some poor Kansans would rather retain their state services than look for jobs. He acknowledged that he believes some participants in state programs do that, but added, "I believe there is hope for everyone."
Some legislators were put off by the administration's moves to involve faith-based groups in programs, fearing money would flow to conservative, evangelical Christian organizations with little experience in providing assistance, such as substance abuse treatment. But SRS said it is will be partners with existing organizations to improve services.
Siedlecki also drew criticism for plans to close local SRS offices in some cities, including Lawrence, the state's sixth-largest. Community leaders and advocates for the poor scoffed at the Brownback administration's contention that poor residents could travel to other offices in other communities. Eventually, local officials agreed to offset the costs of office space by $450,000 to keep the SRS site open for two additional years.
And House Minority Leader Paul Davis, a Lawrence Democrat, attacked Siedlecki over the pay for 40 top SRS positions, including four new ones. Siedlecki's salary was slightly higher than his predecessor's, and total salaries for those jobs were 10 percent higher than previously. But SRS produced figures showing that for 60 positions filled by Siedlecki, overall salary spending had dropped and said Davis had "cherry picked" data.