Sunday, August 19, 2018
News Roundup

Pinellas licensing board needs cash. Will the county give it any?

LARGO –– The grand jury that said Pinellas County should not take over the troubled construction licensing board also said the county should bail out the agency before it goes broke in 2018.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Report slams Pinellas construction licensing agency and leaders

But getting the county's help won't be easy.

The Pinellas County Commission raised concerns months ago about loaning an agency money that it has no say over. The commissioners believe the best way to reform the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board is to place it under county control.

Those sentiments haven't changed — especially after the grand jury rejected the county's preferred solution.

State Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said he'll unveil a bill at Monday'sPinellas legislative delegation meeting that will implement the grand jury's reforms but keep the agency independent, instead of allowing a county takeover.

Why, then, commissioners ask, should the county bail out the licensing board?

"The Florida Legislature created them and to this day don't want the county to have any regulatory oversight," County Commission chair Janet Long said. "How would this money be repaid?"

Added Commissioner Pat Gerard: "I don't see us doing that at this point."

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

However, last week the agency's governing board made its first official request for county help. It instructed interim executive director Gay Lancaster to ask the county commission for a $25,000 loan to refurbish offices in a county facility.

The idea of moving into a public building to save rent comes after the board rejected the county's 2014 offer to give the agency space in a county-owned facility in Clearwater. Then-executive director Rodney Fischer signed a five-year lease for $223,000 to remain in the board's current office in a private facility in Largo.

The agency currently pays $3,939 a month for rent plus utilities. Instead, it could pay $2,806 a month, utilities included, to move into the EpiCenter, a Largo facility the county jointly owns with St. Petersburg College.

The Pinellas licensing board is the only one of its kind in the state, a public agency that doesn't report directly to elected leaders. Instead, it reports to a board of private contractors and public building officials. The agency was created by the Florida Legislature in 1973, so only the Legislature can reform it.

But the job that board has done overseeing the agency was lambasted in a separate report issued last week by the Pinellas County Inspector General. The twin investigations were launched after a series of Tampa Bay Times reports earlier this year about numerous problems with the agency that's supposed to protect consumers from bad contractors.

"Currently, there is no independent oversight of the PCCLB's staff and activities," the inspector general report stated. "The result is an absence of accountability, lack of transparency, and inconsistency in conducting day-to-day operations."

The inspector general's report also found that licensing board has not collected "over $2.4 million" in outstanding fines and citations since 2002.

The agency's financial projections show the agency will go broke in February without a loan of about $500,000. Tax dollars do not support the agency. Instead it's supported by licensing fees and fines — fines it has no power to collect.

So the grand jury report recommended that the county commission work with the agency to provide it a "bridge loan" to solve its financial "crisis."

The basis for that request lies in the 1973 law that created the licensing board, requiring it to deposit any unspent funds into the county's general fund every two years. The agency has sent the county $487,000 since 1994, the report said, and $137,160 of that came in the past decade. That's why the licensing board believes it is entitled to county help.

At last week's board meeting, Lancaster said the agency has engaged with a collection agency to recoup some of those unpaid fines. But an attorney said the agency will likely have to write off about $1.3 million of the oldest fines.

The governing board took another measure last week to raise cash –– hiking license fees –– that could draw the ire of contractors. Those fees have not increased since 2002. The inspector general and grand jury also recommended raising the price after examining fees in five other counties.

Starting Oct. 7, the annual renewal for most Pinellas contractors will jump from $150 to $250.

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

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