City, county discuss merging building code enforcement

WICHITA — Ray Frederick, owner of a Wichita plumbing and heating company, said there was a time when he could call the city to request an inspection of his job site and get a morning or afternoon time slot.

Now it's hard to pin it down to a specific day, he said.

"That not being critical," Frederick said. "That's just a fact because of the challenges they face with staff shortages."

That could change as the city and county consider consolidating and streamlining building code enforcement.

Wednesday, city and county elected officials heard preliminary recommendations from a task force and a consultant about how that might look during a meeting at City Hall.

Five areas are recommended for combining services: building and trade boards, zoning and sign codes, licenses and certificates, plan review and data management.

Neighborhood code enforcement — such as abandoned cars, other property issues and animal control — is not under consideration for merging at this time because the services provided by the city and county are so different.

There is general agreement a consolidation would be more cost-effective for everyone, though no one is putting a dollar amount on the savings.

"Time is money for all these guys," said Wess Galyon, president and CEO of the Wichita Area Builders Association.

For example, contractors wanting to work in Wichita and the county must apply for a license and permits separately from the two government agencies. A consolidation would make it "one-stop shopping," officials said.

The recommendations came from a 94-member task force that included city and county employees and building trade representatives.

Both the council and commission would have to vote before any changes are finalized, City Manager Robert Layton said.

Assistant County Manager Ron Holt said it would be at least January 2013 before the consolidation could be complete.

General concepts

Wednesday's discussion was more about general concepts than details.

"Before we get too far along, we wanted to be sure the elected officials were on board about moving forward," Holt said. "No one said no."

But there were some suggestions, such as taking into account the 18 other cities that the county inspectors serve on a contract basis.

"We need to make sure they are included and whether they want to opt into this," Commissioner Tim Norton said.

The task force said consolidation of services would work best if it was overseen by one entity, as the Wichita Metropolitan Area Planning Commission does now for planning.

Holt said he hopes a task force can resolve who would be the managing partner — city or county — for code enforcement within 60 days. The city is managing partner for the MAPC.

Two consultants were hired to assist the process at a cost of up to $20,000.

One of them, Terry Woodbury, worked as a citizen helping Kansas City, Kan., and Wyandotte County move to a unified government a number of years ago.

But he said that's not what the task force is looking at now.

"This is a bottom up, one-department at-a-time process," he said. "It does not envision a consolidation of the entire governments."

The city and county are also looking the possibility of consolidating economic development departments.

Economic pressures

The driving force behind consolidating the building code enforcement is the poor economy. The city's central inspection is supported by fees. Revenue for the county's department comes out of the general fund, or tax dollars.

Galyon said the number of single family homes — the best barometer for the health of the construction industry — being built in the Wichita area is down 65 percent from the 2,500 to 2,700 homes that went up annually during building heydays of 2003-05.

"They'll go back, but it's going to be a slow trend," he said. "I don't think they'll get back to the 2,500 to 2,700 level in the foreseeable future. A normal will be around 1,800 to 2,000 when we get healthy again, but that's going to be years down the road."

A key component of the consolidation is data management.

"I hope all of you put a big star on this," Frederick told the council and commission. "Data management is critical to it. Without this piece of the puzzle, we probably have very little to talk about."

The city and county have two separate data management systems for code enforcement, including scheduling inspections and licensing. Both systems are now obsolete, officials said.

The city will begin using a new system in March. The county is considering using the same system.

Officials said the county could tap into the city's new system; it would cost $270,000 initially, plus $14,000 annually for support.

Frederick said having both the city and county on an updated system would create significant cost savings for contractors, who could handle much of the process online.

Norton suggested that the consolidated department be located away from City Hall or the Court House, so contractors won't have to deal with security when doing business.

County as model

The task force recommended following the county model for the inspection process, using more combination inspectors — those who inspect electrical, mechanical, building and plumbing.

The city's inspectors are usually designated for specific trade areas.

Woodbury said the combo inspectors would be used for residential inspections and the specialist inspectors would do most of the commercial work.

In addition, he said, the task force recommends having one inspector work a specific geographical area so he will get to know the builders and there will be a savings on driving time.

Council Member Pete Meitzner said he thought it was important to keep working toward the consolidation.

"Although it seems like a giant leap forward," he said, "it can be done. Let's not be afraid to merge."