A conversation with Tom Stolz
08/15/2014 5:12 PM
08/15/2014 5:26 PM
Tom Stolz doesn’t like to hear complaints that businesses – or potential ones – have to jump through hoops to get any kind of permitting in the greater Wichita area.
“We will sell our mothers to get businesses to come to this city,” said Stolz, director of the Metropolitan Area Building and Construction Department.
The one-time “west Sedgwick farm boy,” as he puts it, might only be kidding, but he admits he also was “kind of half kidding” when he inquired about the job.
“I guess maybe I was fishing out there a little bit.”
In 2011, when the county and city began discussing merging the city’s Office of Central Inspection and the Sedgwick County Code Department, Stolz was a deputy police chief.
“It piqued my interest – not because I thought I was going to get a job there,” Stolz said.
He also was teaching a criminal justice management class at Wichita State University and discussing mergers to streamline governments.
“I’m a very big proponent of that, and I often complain to people that we really ought to be more efficient in government and consolidate where we can.”
Stolz had been in the Wichita Police Department for more than three decades.
“I loved policing till the bloody end,” he said.
Stolz said he’s now relishing his new job and the challenges that come with it, which is doing the business of building and construction by day then going home, eating and working until 10 or 11 p.m. on merging the departments.
“This cake is about half baked,” Stolz said of what he has to accomplish. “I don’t want to leave half a cake.”
A big part of what he has to still do is move the departments into one building, the former IRS headquarters at 271 W. Third St.
“We’ll see efficiencies … that we just can’t get today in two separate buildings.”
Stolz said there are a lot of similarities between what he does now and what he did in the police department, but it’s all a far cry from what he set out to do with a biology degree and chemistry minor from what today is called Newman University.
He’d planned to go to medical school, but marriage at age 20 followed by a child changed that. Stolz had a friend in law enforcement and decided he wanted to work in forensic science for the police department.
“I lasted there for about six months because I hated that,” Stolz said. “Everything I did was after the fact. … The interesting thing about being a police officer is you’re on the front edge. … We used to all kid that we were adrenalin junkies.”
Stolz’s police background still shows through.
Ask him a yes-or-no question, and he’ll answer “Affirmative” or “Negative.”
And he still prefers radio codes for giving directions.
“I have the entire building staff using 10-signals.”
Is this job what you thought it would be?
It’s exactly what I thought it would be. It’s like taking a big puzzle and putting pieces together. … I’ve looked at every piece of how we do business. Everything from how we issue permits to how we inspect and … how we do plan reviews on every single community project in the county. … I am way out of my comfort zone, and I’ve met a whole different set of people. All the builders and all the developers and the movers and shakers. I find it very interesting.
I guess I was a little surprised at how different operations are in the county versus in the city. … All of the technical pieces of the merger are falling into place.
And the cultural changes?
You have to go slowly on that. … We had to address those intangible differences … to make this into one department.
Anything you’d do differently when going through another merger?
I’ve told both managers, if we ever do this again – and I hope we do – the key people to have at the table from day one is finance and IT. … That’s part of the interesting thing of this. We’re kind of learning as we go, so the next time, we’ll be a lot smarter.
So is your job all about compromise these days?
That’s the art of doing this job real well. … If you go strictly by the book, you don’t get anything done. You have to … collaborate with people, but you can’t stray very far from the book … because ultimately, we approve every construction project that goes on in this county. … Inspectors have a responsibility to make sure that the spirit of the code is met … and that people … don’t get hurt. … Code is there for a reason, and it’s our job to make sure it’s there. So that’s the stress. A lot of people get mad at city and county because we’re putting them through hoops. … It’s not that we enjoy putting people through hoops.
What are people’s main complaints about your department?
Their main complaint about city and county codes is it’s not consistent. It depends on what inspector you get. It depends on what plan reviewer you get. It’s all over the board. We’re trying to build policy to bring consistency to the field. That’s a big part of what I’m doing with this merger.
You’re someone used to rules, right?
I come from a world in policing where we were heavily policied. … We’re developing policy on the fly as we look at all these operations, and we’re radically changing some things and subtly changing some things … so that contractors and builders and people who want to develop things in Sedgwick County know what to expect from us. … We’re trying to run a business here and do this merger on the fly. … Once the merger is complete, I’ll have a normal job.
But the changes won’t be through?
We’re always going to look at ways to improve process. There’s a ton of things we can look at in the future. … What’s holding us up now is this building move didn’t happen very fast. … It was a tedious process.
Any regrets about taking the job?
No, no, no. I love this job. … Putting this puzzle together is a blast.
How do you think the department is doing?
Most of what I hear is, “Hey, you’re doing a good job. You’re getting to where you need to be. Just get there faster.” … I’d give us about a B-minus. I think we’re doing above average. I think we could do a lot better. … We are definitely not there yet.
Do you miss police work?
There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t miss policing.
I don’t know what’s going on.
Like when a cop car races by you?
It was just driving me crazy the first three or four months. I have to rely … on the information I receive through routine media like everyone else does.
Do you miss the middle-of-the-night calls?
I really kind of do.
What’s one thing few people know about you?
I’ve watched every episode of “Bonanza” at least five times. I just really like “Bonanza.”