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Recent Kansas Editorials

September 26, 2017

The Wichita Eagle, Sept. 22

State employees deserve to work without worry over safety

Anybody having business at City Hall goes through metal detectors manned by security guards. Just in case.

Same with high school football and basketball spectators at games hosted by the Wichita school district. Just in case.

“Just in case” hasn’t applied to the Wichita tax compliance office operated by the Kansas Department of Revenue. Tuesday’s shooting of a worker shows that the state was comfortable with its employees and patrons not having protection from customers who may have felt aggrieved by the tax process or seizure of assets.

It is an unfortunate decision and one ready to be corrected.

The tax compliance office, located at Twin Lakes Shopping Center, is where residents go to pay back taxes. Sometimes property is seized, which can create angry customers.

Ricky Wirths, 51, is accused of shooting tax compliance agent Cortney Holloway multiple times Tuesday. The Department of Revenue said Wirths was facing forfeiture of assets because of nearly $400,000 in outstanding tax warrants against him and his construction company.

Police said Wirths entered an outer door, asked for Holloway specifically, then was granted access through another door by an employee.

Wirths found Holloway, they spoke briefly, then began shooting, a witness said. It came less than three hours after Holloway and sheriff’s authorities seized assets at Wirth’s home. Security accompanied Holloway to Wirths’ house, but the policy doesn’t bring security back to the tax office - where a witness told The Eagle the shooter kept firing until there were no more bullets.

Holloway was in critical condition after the shooting but was upgraded to fair condition Thursday.

Could the shooting have happened even with metal detectors and security in place? Possibly. An assailant may not get his weapon through the metal detector, but it wouldn’t prevent him from shooting before then.

The point is that metal detectors and security guards are deterrents. Someone with enough anger and instability to want to shoot up an office at least has to think about whether he’ll be successful if there are deterrents in place.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Sam Brownback and the Department of Revenue said this week that the agency is taking steps to secure offices. The spokeswoman called the incident a first for the department.

That’s too late for Holloway, his family and those in the tax office when shooting began. Anything less than beefed-up security is unacceptable at any state office where employees may come into contact with disgruntled visitors. Tax collection in an unenviable job made tougher when worrying about safety.


The Topeka Capital-Journal, Sept. 24

DCF needs to ensure that children in the foster care system have places to stay

Over the past year, children in the state’s foster care system have had to spend the night in contractors’ offices more than 100 times. The Kansas Department for Children and Families works with Saint Francis Community Services and KVC Health Systems to administer the foster care system, and these contractors recently informed the Child Welfare Task Force about the number of overnight stays. According to Rachel Marsh, the director of public policy at Saint Francis, “It is actually an office because we don’t want to normalize this in any way. So they would end up on a couch or a makeshift bed.” But when something is happening this often, hasn’t it already been normalized?

When children enter the foster care system, they’re already suffering through a traumatic, disorienting experience. Shouldn’t the state be capable of making arrangements that don’t make them feel even worse? Lori Ross is the president and CEO of FosterAdopt Connect, and she argues that keeping kids in offices overnight is psychologically harmful: “Each time they need to move, they hear in their head, ‘You’re not part of this family, you’re not valuable.’ ” This doesn’t mean state officials and contractors aren’t doing their best to make kids feel comfortable — it just means a night in an office would make anyone feel like an afterthought.

However, we recognize that certain cases present logistical challenges. Saint Francis informed the task force that many of the children who spent the night in offices were difficult to place for behavioral reasons. They often exhibited sexual aggression, violent or suicidal tendencies, and an inclination to flee from placement. Marsh points out that it was sometimes impossible to find places equipped to accommodate these kids in the middle of the night: “At some point, there’s only so many phone calls you can make and everyone tells you ‘no.’ ”

Moreover, a juvenile justice reform bill was passed earlier this year to keep low-level offenders out of detention facilities, and this may temporarily put pressure on our foster care system. Rep. Russ Jennings, R-Lakin, is chairman of the Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee, and he says the office stays are a natural consequence of the bill: “The absolute intended consequence was to assure that children in need of care are not placed in juvenile detention centers.” DCF Secretary Phyllis Gilmore makes a similar point: “Our foster care system is not able to deal with those individuals that have more behavioral issues than just the normal foster child.” However, she’s also “sorry that there’s ever any staying overnight in any office. Certainly we don’t want that at all.”

But it’s not as if state officials were unaware that the juvenile justice bill had the potential to transfer an influx of kids with behavioral issues to the foster care system. If this was an “absolute intended consequence,” what was done to prepare for it? And why did the task force have to receive information about office stays from the contractors? Shouldn’t DCF share databases with its contractors to maintain thorough oversight of children in the foster care system? Gilmore says “we are working to identify solutions to create a more uniform system,” but how far along is that process? Should we expect those solutions any time soon?

On the issue of overnight stays, Gilmore says “we’re addressing it in many ways.” Again, what ways? Kansans need to know how foster children are being cared for in the state, and DCF isn’t doing a good job of informing them.


The Lawrence Journal-World, Sept. 22

A lesson about transparency

The Tonganoxie poultry plant fiasco is an example of why transparency works and secrecy doesn’t when it comes to government.

Tyson Foods Inc. announced last week that it is shelving its proposed $320 million poultry plant near Tonganoxie, just a day after the Leavenworth County Commission and Tonganoxie City Commission each reversed their support for public incentives that would benefit the plant.

Tyson pulled the plug on the plant just two weeks after company officials, Gov. Sam Brownback and others came to Tonganoxie to announce it. The state-of-the-art chicken-processing facility would span more than 300 acres at a site two miles south of Tonganoxie. The plant was expected to employ up to 1,600 workers earning salaries of $12 to $15 per hour.

Tyson chose the site in part because the company had received commitments that city and county government were ready to provide incentives for the project. For the county, that commitment was $500 million in industrial revenue bonds to cover 80 percent tax abatements for 10 years. The city of Tonganoxie was expected to extend sewer service to the plant site at a cost of $1.3 million.

By the time the announcement was made, the commitments of support from the county and city were in hand. In fact, county commissioners voted 3-0 to support a bond resolution to benefit something called Binswager Advisory Services. It was only after the Tyson announcement that it was revealed that Binswager is really Tyson.

State, county and city officials clearly thought they had an economic development winner. Why else would Brownback make the announcement? But the backlash was immediate and strong. A protest group quickly formed and 2,000 showed up for a town hall meeting with state officials in a Tonganoxie park to protest the plant.

At Monday’s Tonganoxie City Commission meeting, four of five commissioners indicated they no longer supported extending sewer service to Tyson. On Monday, county commissioners voted 2-1 to rescind the offer of industrial revenue bonds. By Tuesday, Tyson had had enough.

“We still have interest in Leavenworth County,” the company said in a letter distributed widely in Tonganoxie, “but will prioritize the other locations in Kansas and other states that have expressed support.”

The ordeal could not have gone worse for county and city commissioners, who secretly played a significant role in helping lure Tyson to the area and then openly couldn’t run away fast enough from the ensuing backlash.

This should have been handled differently. Having the governor announce the chicken plant made it seem like the facility — including the incentives — was a done deal. That raised the level of public mistrust and doomed the plant.

Next time, if there is a next time, county and city should insist on transparency. Any commitments on public incentives should come only after public discussions about the applicants and the merits of the projects.

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