Wednesday, June 20, 2018
News Roundup

Pinellas commissioners: Give us control of licensing board

CLEARWATER –– Pinellas County's seven commissioners declared that they're ready to take over the responsibility of regulating contractors.

The commission on Tuesday renewed its call for lawmakers to place the independent but flawed Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board under the control of county government.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Report slams Pinellas construction licensing agency and leaders

The agency oversees uniform building codes in the county and regulates contractors by licensing them and adjudicating disputes with consumers. But the commission said it's time for the county to protect the public from the licensing board.

"It's been a disservice to our community," County Commissioner Ken Welch said. "The model is broken."

Lawmakers had rejected the commission's request in February to takeover the board. But then the county's inspector general released a scathing report on Sept. 20 outlining dozens of issues with the licensing board, the same day a grand jury recommended reforming the agency.

But the grand jury also suggested that the agency could remain independent. Then the staunchest advocate of independence, state Sen. Jack Latvala, backed off on Monday, opening the door for the county commission to get its way.

But the commissioners must settle on how to reform the agency by Friday. That is the deadline for members of the Pinellas legislative delegation to submit bills for the 2018 session. Only the Florida Legislature has the power to reform the licensing board because it created the agency in 1973 and made it independent, separate from county government.

One commissioner said that after reading the inspector general's report, she no longer believes that is a good idea.

"I'm coming full circle to where you want to go," commissioner Karen Seel told the board, adding: "I will support that."

TAMPA BAY TIMES INVESTIGATION: THE PINELLAS COUNTY CONSTRUCTION LICENSING BOARD

Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board plays fast and loose with disciplinary process

Pinellas licensing board leader Rodney Fischer described as a 'bully' and 'suspicious' in clashes with employees and county officials

Pinellas licensing board executive director settled hundreds of cases without getting his board's approval

Times investigation: Pinellas County construction agency steered work to board member

A series of Tampa Bay Times reports earlier this year questioned the agency's mission, effectiveness, the conduct of employees and management and whether the licensing board treated consumers and contractors fairly when it settled disputes and issued disciplinary fines.

The report from Pinellas County Inspector General Hector Collazo Jr. detailed 93 problems with the way the agency handles tracks its finances, stores and maintains public records and disregards its own rules and state law.

Commissioner Dave Eggers even called for the agency to change its name because taxpayers believe it is part of county government with the words "Pinellas County" at the front of its title.

The commission directed county administrator Mark Woodard and county attorney Jewel White to talk to Pinellas lawmakers and craft a legislative bill to take over the licensing board.

The county commission also faces a fiscal question in connection with the licensing board. The agency is going broke and could shutdown in 2018. The agency is supported by licensing fees and contractor fines, but it has no power to collect those fines.

The grand jury report recommended that the county commission provide the agency a "bridge loan" of $500,000 to solve the licensing board's financial "crisis." Commissioners didn't vote on whether to loan the agency any money on Tuesday, but several voiced displeasure about being asked to give taxpayer money to an agency that has no oversight.

"I feel very strongly it is a mistake to give them a loan or bail them out," commission chair Janet Long said.

Commissioners also addressed another point in the grand jury report: It cautioned that moving the licensing board under county government could jeopardize the "Coastal Construction Line Agreement" the agency reached in 2001 with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.

The agreement regulates coastal construction and excavation in accordance with state law. But a prosecutor who helped direct the grand jury said nobody called DEP to ask what would happen to the agreement if the licensing board was abolished.

The county attorney told commissioners that DEP general counsel Robert Williams told her the agency would likely be able to work out a way to maintain that agreement if the Legislature gets rid of the independent licensing board.

"He is very keenly aware of our issues," White said. "I'm optimistic we could work something out with the state."

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

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