Saturday, February 24, 2018
News Roundup

For now, Pinellas County Commission won't loan any money to keep construction licensing board open

CLEARWATER — The grim financial future of the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board will continue to linger until authorities finish a sweeping investigation of the agency.

The Pinellas County Commission said during Tuesday's budget hearing that it would not loan the agency any money until it knows how much it actually needs to stay afloat beyond February 2018.

That's when the agency, which is funded solely by fees and fines, is projected to run out of cash. Licensing board interim executive director Gay Lancaster, who took over this February, said she won't know exactly how much the agency needs for several months.

"I cannot make a commitment until knowing what the ask will be," County Commissioner John Morroni said.

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

The hearing revealed that one thing remains certain: A majority of commissioners still want control of the troubled agency. The licensing board was created by the Florida Legislature in 1973 as an independent agency and does not report to anyone, including county government.

Four commissioners reiterated the agency needs to be held accountable for its mismanagement in recent years. The licensing board is being investigated by a grand jury and the county's inspector general.

Lancaster said it is still possible the county could gain control if the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office, which is conducting the grand jury investigation, determines that is the best way to move forward.

"It's hard to discipline us when we are not your child," Lancaster said about the board's independent nature. However, it's up to the Legislature to place the board under county control.

While Lancaster said the agency needs money to stay solvent, it will take a few months to figure out exactly how much it needs. She estimated that it could take anywhere from $217,000 to $700,000 to rescue the agency — but cautioned that the figure could be much lower.

Commissioners quizzed Lancaster about how the agency ended up in such financial distress.

Lancaster blamed the agency's investigators, who are supposed to issue citations to bad contractors. The agency is down to one full-time inspector and one part-time inspector.

"I have found that investigators' work is not sufficient to support the organization," she said.

Meanwhile, she told the county commission that she and an assistant county attorney have implemented new policies and procedures at the agency.

"I want it fixed," Commissioner Dave Eggers said. "It's my hope that work being done now can situate the agency."

Next month, the agency will save about $10,000 when former executive director Rodney Fischer retires July 2. He has been collecting saved vacation hours since he stepped down Jan. 31 after leading the agency for 16 years.

Commissioner Charlie Justice asked Lancaster about Fischer's demand for a $30,000 severance package.

"The former executive director submitted his retirement," Lancaster replied. "There has been no offer of a settlement."

Last week, Lancaster told the Tampa Bay Times that Fischer would not get a settlement on the advice of a county attorney.

The independent agency has already spent about $400,000 from reserves just to stay open. One issue hurting the licensing board's finances is that it has no power to force contractors to pay fines. The agency said it is owed $1.8 million that it cannot collect.

Since January, a series of Times reports raised many questions about how the agency fulfilled its mission under Fischer's management: whether it followed state law and its own rules, and whether it treated consumers and contractors alike fairly.

The Times also reported that Fischer met privately with contractors to deal with fines and disciplinary matters. But the consumers who filed the complaints and the board that oversees the agency never knew that.

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

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