City, county and union officials are nearing agreement on a plan to merge Wichita and Sedgwick County’s code enforcement offices.
It’s a move tailored for more efficient customer service, city and county officials say, while retaining the area’s commitment to top-quality housing and building construction. However, all sides say the merger is unlikely to produce immediate cost savings.
The merger plan will link the city and county’s inspection functions in a one-stop shop for builders in a separate facility outside City Hall and the Sedgwick County Courthouse. The talks come as the city and county search for a new director to oversee the joint city-county code enforcement office. City director Kurt Schroeder and county director Glen Wiltse retired last year.
Officials want to roll out the consolidated inspection office by the first of the year.
“Years ago, the city and the county built their own empires,” Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer said. “It’s a new day, a new time, and we have to be conscious of the taxes our citizens pay, making our services more cost-effective while making sure we take the best practices of both our organizations and incorporating those things together.”
The separate location for the code enforcement operation hasn’t been identified yet. City Manager Robert Layton and Ron Holt, the assistant county manager working on the project, said this week they’d like to see the joint city-county planning operation, the Wichita Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, housed with code enforcement.
“The biggest advantage we see to the merger is efficiency in serving customers,” Holt said. “The potential builder, for example, who can walk in and do all their business in one place. It’s about a one-stop shop, about consistency of service.”
A few issues remain, including balancing out what city and county officials admit is a significant disparity on compensation for code enforcement employees. But Harold Schlechtweg, senior business representative for Service Employees International Union Local 513, which represents some of the city’s code enforcement employees, said Thursday the union is satisfied with the progress of talks.
“The goal is to be fair to the employees,” Layton said. “Fairness is obviously in the eyes of the employee. I think, though, that the direction we’re headed would be considered fair by the employees.”
Layton and Schlechtweg declined to elaborate on the financial details of that direction.
Earlier this month, Schlechtweg expressed concern to The Eagle about the amount of influence exercised by the Wichita Area Builders Association on the merger talks.
“One of the things that’s interesting about this is this initiative started with the county manager (Bill Buchanan),” Layton said. “It didn’t start at WABA. This came up when both jurisdictions were going through some tough financial times, and we had the opportunity for changes in the code operations due to the changes in leadership at both.
“Bill brought up this concept and asked if it makes sense. And while we were studying it, both directors announced they were leaving. So it became a perfect time to talk about consolidation.”
Brewer said this week that the city and county will not agree to any dilution of building codes from the merger.
“We will have the same expectations we had last year or a few months ago,” Brewer said. “We’ll always look at ways to improve, but we’ll work with the county on how we can do that.
“I was clear in the State of the City address. We had that housing addition down south that had some problems (Maple Shade) and we put some things in place to make sure that never happens again.
“We intend to maintain the quality of housing stock we have today.”
Wess Galyon, president of WABA, said he stands behind the current set of codes and the progress made by the city and county in the merger talks.
“What we want is a comprehensive set of codes, and the city and county together on the same codes,” he said. “No one suggested diluting the codes. We didn’t, and I didn’t hear the trades doing that.”
What’s less clear is whether the merger will result in any substantial financial savings to the city and county, both struggling with budget problems.
“I think we’ll save money as the economy heats up when construction starts, especially on the residential side,” Layton said. “At that point, we’ll see with a joint operation and better utilization of combination inspectors (inspectors qualified to conduct most building inspections), that’s where the savings will come in. We’ll be better able to keep our costs down.”
“The driving factor for our commissioners is whether we can provide better service at a similar cost right now,” Holt said. “Over time, it may become about providing better services at a lesser cost.”