More trouble for the troubled Pinellas construction licensing board: It's running out of money

The Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board is located at 12600 Belcher Road Iin an office compex.  [SCOTT KEELER  |   Times]
The Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board is located at 12600 Belcher Road Iin an office compex. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published May 5 2017
Updated May 9 2017

LARGO –– Everything about the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board is under scrutiny: the way it treats the public and punishes contractors; the way board members are appointed and employees conduct themselves; and how it handles conflicts of interest and adheres to public records law. The agency is even being investigated by a grand jury.

But now it must confront a new problem: It is running out of money.

The licensing board is under so much financial distress that it has been forced to siphon nearly $400,000 out of its reserves just to stay afloat in recent months. Last year it had an annual budget of $1.8 million.

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The agency operates solely on what it raises in license fees and fines from contractors. County officials have told the agency it must somehow raise revenue to stay in the black.

That will not be easy. One possible solution to increase the $150 license fee would likely ignite outrage because contractors already pay twice the fees to work in Pinellas that they pay to work in other Tampa Bay area counties.

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Other fixes include asking the county for a loan to keep the agency solvent, or hiring temporary workers to issue citations –– something akin to hiring private security guards to investigate crimes.

"All that has to be taken into consideration," said interim agency executive director Gay Lancaster. "We are doing everything we can to step up revenues."

The budget shortfall is just the latest in a series of problems besetting the agency.

A series of Tampa Bay Times reports has raised questions about how former executive director Rodney Fischer treated residents, disciplined contractors and followed the law. He resigned Jan. 31 after complaints from county commissioners and legislators.

The agency is now being investigated by a grand jury looking for possible violations of law. The Pinellas County Office of the Inspector General is also looking into its finances and operations.

The Pinellas agency is the only construction licensing board in Florida that runs without any county government oversight. It can be reformed only by the Florida Legislature.

In January, Fischer announced that he would leave the agency after 16 years in the top job and officially retire June 30. But Fischer also said he planned to take 1,164 hours of accrued vacation time he said he had yet to take.

That could further burden the board's finances. He is still on the payroll and seeking a $30,000 payout when he exhausts his vacation hours in June. At some point, the board will have to decide what to do about his payout.

The licensing board is one of the county's smallest government agencies, with 10 employees. The paid staff includes an executive director, five office workers and four investigators.

But the agency has fallen well behind its budget projections for this fiscal year, records show. Instead of raising an expected $390,000 from citations and fines from October 2016 through September, records show the agency raised only 30 percent, or $116,000, of that through March.

The head of the county's Office of Management and Budget, Bill Berger, said he and Lancaster have discussed the "negative cash-flow situation." A conservative analysis of expenses and revenues, he said, shows the agency will get through the end of the fiscal year in September.

But the problem is projected to only get worse by the end of 2017, Berger said, adding: "That is when they will have a cash-flow problem."

One problem is the agency doesn't collect what it says it fines violators. Records show the agency has received just $42,733, or 23 percent, of the $190,000 in fines levied against licensed contractors. For unlicensed activity, the agency has collected $73,000, or 37 percent of $200,000 in fines.

Just issuing more citations may not solve the budget problem.

First, unlicensed scofflaws would have to pay the money — and many are not. The board said it's owed $1.6 million in unpaid fines but has no ability to collect them. Second, some fines from licensed contractors are not paid until the end of investigations that can take months.

St. Petersburg painter Michael Brotherton said he recently complained to county and city officials about the board not doing enough to target unlicensed contractors. He said he takes pride in holding a license but called it unfair that he might have to pay more than the current $150 fee to renew his license.

He predicted thousands of contractors would object.

"That is absurd," said Brotherton, a second-generation painter. "I won't pay it. Why do we continue to pay for a board that is ineffective? I won't pay for an inferior product. They do nothing to protect me or homeowners."

There's another issue contributing to the agency's budget woes: Investigators haven't been investigating complaints, so the board can't levy fines.

In fact, during the past six weeks, there have been times when only one investigator was on the street.

One investigator went on leave in March. He recently returned to work several days a week. Another took several weeks of vacation, and a third resigned after being accused of threatening to attack motorists with a baseball bat.

"When one employee takes off," Lancaster said, "it interrupts the revenue stream."

Ken Burnett, who worked as an agency investigator from 2012 to 2015, said adding temporary workers would amount to "smoke and mirrors." He questioned whether temporary workers could interpret complex building codes and then handle the cases as they move through the board pipeline.

"Temp workers may not have the backgrounds for this position," said Burnett, a former deputy police chief with a 30-year law enforcement career. "Why not hire regular full-time workers?"

Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente