NEW PORT RICHEY — Charlie and Tricia Ruocco wanted to make their home the neighborhood hangout. The one that their sons' friends flock to for movies, sleepovers, cookouts. That way they'd be better able to keep tabs on their kids and the company they were keeping.
"We wanted a safe haven," said Charlie, 47.
They decided to build a swimming pool. They researched companies online. Florida Pool Specialists had a clean record on a consumer website and submitted a good bid. Owner Kurt Kucera visited their Longleaf home and made them feel comfortable. He even invited the family to the Palm Harbor showroom and said the boys could play Xbox.
On Nov. 3, they signed a $25,000 contract for a 14- by 24-foot pool. "No hidden secrets," Kucera wrote on the contract.
Seven months later, the company whose slogan is "Your Backyard Oasis" has left the family with a concrete hole partly filled with rainwater, loose bricks, unfinished grout, a trash pile and no drains, which is sending rain into their garage.
The Ruoccos are physical education teachers — she's at Longleaf Elementary and he's at Tarpon Springs Middle — who make a combined $65,000 a year. They are out $20,000. They also got hit with liens from unpaid subcontractors totaling $4,929. "This is our savings," said Tricia, who with her husband took out a second mortgage to finance the pool.
The Ruoccos aren't alone in their dissatisfaction with Florida Pool Specialists. Across the Tampa Bay area, customers are filing lawsuits and complaints as they fume over unfinished pools and liens from unpaid subcontractors.
The pool company, which is licensed with the state, says it has legitimate reasons for the delays and has satisfied the liens. Kucera and his mother, Rose Tennant, who volunteers in the office, also blame an unnamed ex-employee who they say stole a confidential client list, and another customer, whom they accused of inciting others and harassing them with e-mails and phone calls.
"He's waging a one-man war," Tennant said last week.
Richard Kane is the alleged troublemaker, a title he says he's glad to bear, even though he says the other unhappy customers found him.
The 53-year-old New Port Richey resident signed a contract for a $40,000 pool on May 7, 2009.
"I just want them to finish my pool," said Kane, who sued Florida Pool Specialists in April.
Kane said last week, after inquiries from the St. Petersburg Times, that crews finally put in the salt system that had kept him from using his pool. Still missing, he said, are solar panels, a handrail, pool cleaner, a proper filter, drainage valve and remote control for the lights.
He said at one time, no one showed up at the work site for three months. His calls to Florida Pool Specialists went unreturned.
Kane said Kucera put his home at risk by failing to pay Lifetime Aluminum for a pool cage the company installed. Lifetime filed a $7,800 lien and followed with a lawsuit seeking the sale of Kane's home to satisfy the debt. Florida Pool Specialists eventually repaid the company and the suit was dropped.
Kane admitted sending angry e-mails to the company, saying he was worried about the possibility of losing his house.
"You people can run, but you cannot hide," one e-mail said. "I'm personally going to make sure your state license is revoked and the application for (a registered license) is denied. I will sue you for everything you have. You do not have the (guts) to answer to anyone."
Kane said he has filed a complaint with the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation. As for talking with other disgruntled customers, he said, so what?
In an age of online public records and social media, he said, contractors should expect customers to compare notes.
Among the other customers are Irene Radcliff and William Yaremchuk of South Tampa. The couple, who filed a lawsuit in April, said Florida Pool Specialists failed to deliver pool equipment, including the pump, filter, light fixtures and other hardware after being paid $37,650 of the $38,500 total price. The couple were served with a $2,000 lien, the lawsuit said.
Seven months later, the couple terminated the contract with Florida Pool Specialists and hired another company to finish the pool.
The complaint accuses Kucera and the company of diverting the couple's payments to other business and/or personal use.
It said he misrepresented the company, which state records show has been in business since December 2008, of being in business for years. It also accused Kucera of misrepresenting the time it would take to build the pool, the company's financial stability and the size of the business.
Their story is similar to that of Bea Weems of Clearwater.
The 79-year-old retired nurse and her 82-year-old husband paid another company about $10,000 to finish their $36,745 pool.
"We were very lenient with him," said Weems, who had to pay $2,500 in attorney fees to deal with nearly $10,000 in liens from three subcontractors. "We gave him every chance in the world. We believed everything he said, which was a mistake."
A series of setbacks
Florida Pool Specialists' owners admit they are behind on their projects and their bills. In addition to the liens that were filed, three employees have sued, saying the company failed to pay the required time-and-a-half hourly rate for overtime work.
Kucera denied those allegations and called it "an ambulance-chaser type of case." His attorney, Mark Bortner, said the crews failed to perform the required work.
Kucera, who was the owner of Concrete Pumping Services, once enjoyed an A rating with the Better Business Bureau for that business. Last week, Florida Pool Specialists had a C rating, with eight complaints listed and five more pending. Angie's List shows an overall C rating, but a customer whose pool Kucera remodeled in 2008 gave his company an A. He said service was prompt and described workmanship as "outstanding." Another gave Florida Pool Specialists an F described Kucera as "the equivalent of a used car salesman."
A dismal economy, a cold, rainy winter that prevented work from being done, the death of a valuable crew leader and some crews that had to be fired all added up to a backlog, Kucera and his mother said.
Add to that mix customers with unrealistic expectations, he said, and you have real trouble.
"We follow a strict code of ethics," said Kucera, 28, who started installing pools as a teenager when he worked for his ex-stepfather's business, Gulfstream Pools & Spas in Oldsmar.
When projects are delayed, it costs the company money, he said. "We want these finished. We don't want to leave our customers high and dry."
Kucera showed a manufacturer's manual that said concrete shells need at least 30 days to cure before other work can be done. Pool equipment is always delivered last and never left at the site, he said, to keep it from being stolen.
As for weather, he said he goes by the radar. He won't dispatch crews if storms are headed toward a customer's home.
He also said his company has satisfied all the liens placed on customers' homes.
Tennant, Kucera's mother, said a falling out with an employee prompted him to take a customer list and give it to customers who had grievances in an attempt to smear the company.
"This is only a handful of people," she said.
Tennant submitted a list of five former customers who said they were satisfied with the company and its work.
"I was surprised they got it done as fast as they did," said Beth Hoffman of Oldsmar, who had her pool remodeled about 18 months ago. Jeff Clark of Palm Harbor, who had a pool and 7-foot spa built in 2008, said the company submitted a detailed bid and did not charge for cost overruns.
"Kurt's a good guy and was true to his word," Clark said. He said the pool did take a bit longer than expected, but "that's how it is with the construction industry. We weren't in any hurry."
Tennant said disgruntled customers sign contracts requiring them to go through arbitration with the Florida Association of Swimming Pools. They need to let the process work instead of running to the media, she said.
One thing Kurt said he learned in the pool business: "Never give an exact date of completion."
So what is a realistic time for a pool to be completed?
That's tough to say given all the variables, says Wendy Parker, executive director of the Sarasota-based Florida Swimming Pool Association.
"I would say six months to a year is way outside the time," Parker said.
Problem with pavers
As for the Ruoccos' pool, Kucera said it would be finished soon. The holdup has been that the family hired Lifetime Aluminum on its own to screen in the pool area and that firm hasn't done its work yet.
Kucera said child safety laws require the pool site have a barrier before he can finish the work. "It's a hazard to the neighborhood," he said.
The Ruoccos say they have a temporary fence up and in November bought a child safety fence, which they can't install until the pavers are completed. They also say Lifetime has the pool cage on its property but they can't have it installed until all the pavers are properly installed.
Kucera told the Ruoccos that pavers they needed had not arrived. However, the Ruoccos e-mailed the paver company Monday. A representative replied that the pavers were in stock and available.
Kucera said on Friday that he planned to send someone soon to install them.
Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.