The Docking State Office Building poses challenges for the Kansas state government. It’s largely empty and neglected. It would cost many millions to repair.
But as reporting from The Topeka Capital-Journal’s Sherman Smith and Tim Carpenter shows, the most immediate challenges posed are the poor decisions made by former Gov. Sam Brownback’s administration about the building.
In the administration’s unseemly haste to demolish Docking, deals were made to relocate state employees to sites across Topeka. Long-term leases were signed, locking the state into deals that will hamper flexible and efficient state government for decades to come.
A literal generation will pass before some of these deals will come up for renegotiation.
It could have been worse. The previous administration’s secretary of administration also proposed selling the Landon and Eisenhower buildings, although in those cases the structures would have at least been left standing.
Perhaps the most telling part of Smith's and Carpenter’s piece is the following: “Mike Morse, a Topeka real estate broker at Kansas Commercial, defended the privatization of office space in light of the Legislature’s track record of underfunding building maintenance.”
In other words, the administration’s actions — while short-sighted and expensive — are part of a larger, profound problem with state government.
That is, legislators can be reluctant to spend money up front to save money later. The same mindset can be seen in ongoing debates about health care and the state budget. Those with eyes focused beyond the next election cycle know that the state can ultimately save money by investing wisely now. It’s the reason you repair your basement rather than waiting for it to cave in. It’s the reason you repair your roof rather than waiting for a tree to fall through it.
These long-term contracts show the costs of short-term thinking. Lawmakers put off repairing Docking. As costs to fix the building mounted, that gave the Brownback administration an excuse to make dubious deals.
Unfortunately, there is no simple way out of this. Contracts are contracts, even if they create problems. Gov. Laura Kelly’s administration has a gigantic task in examining these deals. If some of them must be broken, the administration should be prepared to shoulder the associated costs and explain why the action was taken.
And in the future, everyone should plan for the longest term possible, avoiding the creation of more avoidable traps.