City-county code department to transition to non-union shop

City and county officials have agreed on basic details behind the merger of their code enforcement departments, slated to take effect Jan. 1.

The merger will eliminate union inspectors and staff through attrition, but its effect on inspector and staff salaries is yet to be determined, according to a memorandum of understanding obtained by The Eagle.

The merged department will be built on the Metropolitan Area Planning Department model, a similar merged planning and zoning office housed at City Hall. Included will be a new inspection director hired by July 1 and responsible to Wichita City Manager Robert Layton and Sedgwick County Manager William Buchanan. The city-county codes it will enforce are essentially similar, officials said.

As current employees leave the joint inspection office through attrition, the office will transition to a non-union shop on the county payroll with county benefits. No jobs will be lost in the merger, Layton said.

The new inspection office will be housed outside City Hall and the county courthouse, but a location has not been determined. All inspectors will work throughout the county, including honoring some county contracts for work in some outlying cities.

Initial cost savings will be limited, Layton said, but customers – generally, contractors – should enjoy greater efficiency in a one-stop shop for building permit and inspection needs.

“The only savings I think we’ll see are in sharing the salary of the director initially,” Layton said. “There may be some cost savings in support services, but the real cost benefit comes as the economy picks up.”

Current city inspection employees will continue to receive their salaries and benefits, including retirement benefits, through the city and will be part of Service Employees International Union 513 until they leave their jobs. Current county employees will receive their salary and benefits through Sedgwick County and will remain part of the KPERS system with no union affiliation. Any new employees will be hired under the county terms.

Ron Holt, the assistant county manager who is Sedgwick County’s point man on the merger talks, said salary issues remain unresolved but it’s unlikely the merger will lower salaries in the office. Currently, pay rates for city inspection employees are generally higher than their county counterparts.

“We’re still taking a look at that,” he said. “One of the things that might happen, though, is that people doing the same work for both of us will get the same pay, which might mean a pay increase for some county employees.”

Interviews should begin late this month for the new inspection director, who will be appointed and managed jointly by Layton and Buchanan.

It’s unlikely that SEIU will represent the employees of the merged inspection department, said Harold Schlechtweg, business agent for the union. The Sedgwick County Commission has been historically unwilling to pass a majority vote to allow unionization at the county, he said.

“It really depends on what happens over there in terms of elections,” he said.

SEIU’s goal in the merger talks was to protect its city union members, said Schlechtweg, who praised the work of Layton and Buchanan on the merger.

“It’s going to have to happen anyway,” he said. “Sedgwick County is becoming one big metro area. Our goal was to protect the professional integrity of our city employees to be free from political interference or interference from the builders, and we think we’ve done that.”

What’s less clear is the impact the merger will have on protecting consumer interests, Schlechtweg said.

“I think the jury’s really out on that. I know that Bob (Layton) wants to do what’s right,” he said. “I think you’ll have to look at the political context.”

Wess Galyon, president of the Wichita Area Builders Association, said he’s disappointed at any suggestion the builders have interfered in code development at City Hall, calling it unfair.

Galyon said his members remain satisfied with the direction of the merger talks.

“It’s an aggressive timeline, but it appears that based on what Ron Holt had to say when he visited with us, things are moving along well,” he said. “The real key is the commitment of the two managers to get this done, and that commitment is there.”