Tuesday, May 22, 2018
News Roundup

Pinellas sheriff says construction board never asked for help cracking down on unlicensed contractors

While homeowners continue to fall prey to unlicensed contractors, the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board can't do much to stop violators. The agency is down to one part-time investigator. It also doesn't have the power to enforce the law or collect unpaid fines.

The problem has gotten so bad, according to licensing board officials, that the troubled agency wants backup: the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.

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Last week, its governing board discussed how another law enforcement agency, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, has a dedicated unit targeting unlicensed contractors. Other counties conduct similar operations.

Board members wondered why Pinellas deputies can't do the same thing?

Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri told the Tampa Bay Times why:

"We've never been asked to do it," he said. "They've never asked if we want to help. I will certainly entertain the discussion to create a partnership."

Gualtieri said it makes sense for deputies to investigate when unlicensed contractors harm residents financially, which is a crime. However, the sheriff said no one from the licensing board has ever asked for his agency's help.

The sheriff said he has definitely never heard from former executive director Rodney Fischer, who resigned in January and whose agency is under investigation by a grand jury.

"They really need to come forward to begin the discussion," the sheriff said. "If nothing is being done to fix the problems, there are no consequences and (violators) aren't in fear."

Construction fraud can cost unwitting homeowners thousands of dollars for work that is never done or left incomplete. Contracting without a license is a misdemeanor on the first offenses and a felony the second time.

But in Pinellas County, it's the construction licensing board's job to crack down on unlicensed contractors. However, it's a civilian agency that doesn't have police powers. Its inspectors can fine contractors, but that's it.

The Times has raised questions about how the agency has gone about fulfilling its mission. The agency has skirted its own rules and even state law, leaving consumers and contractors feeling mistreated and ignored. Fischer also met privately with contractors to deal with fines and disciplinary matters — without the knowledge of the consumers who filed the complaints or the board that oversees the agency.

In unincorporated Hillsborough, county residents rely on the deputies of the construction fraud unit to investigate unlicensed contracting alongside the county building service's division.

Before 2013, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office's white-collar crime unit handled contracting cases. That changed after trade associations and county code officers noticed an uptick in complaints. To launch the new unit, the building division dedicated a small portion of money from license fees to pay for the sheriff's expenses.

Most cases in Hillsborough start with referrals from county building officials, the state Department of Financial Services or the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

The deputies focus on individuals ripping off homeowners, said Detective Jose Sanchez.

"There's a lot of big money to made by these guys," Sanchez said.

Since 2013, he said deputies have investigated more than 300 cases, filed 92 felony charges and nearly 200 misdemeanors against violators.

Word about the unit quickly spread among contractors, he said, once deputies started arresting violators. He doesn't expect to eliminate unlicensed contracting, but the threat of going to jail has had an impact.

"These guys know the system," Sanchez said. "It's much different than a simple letter saying you owe a fine."

The detective gave a recent example: a judge sentenced a violator to five years in prison for bilking an elderly Brandon woman out of $198,000.

But Sanchez said it takes more than arrests to stop unlicensed contractors. Deputies also educate the public about the dangers of hiring unlicensed contractors and encourage violators to get trained and become licensed.

Other agencies have taken notice.

Sanchez said he has made presentations to the Sheriff's Office's in Hernando, Pasco and Polk counties and the St. Petersburg Police Department. He can help Pinellas deputies, too.

"We have a good program," he said.

Seminole building official Jim Ford has seen it work himself. A recent appointee to Pinellas' licensing board, he once worked as a building official in Hillsborough County. He said the partnership among deputies, building inspectors and prosecutors has worked: Building officials knew it was deterring bad actors once they noticed an uptick of residents calling to report unlicensed contractors and to ask whether those contractors had licenses.

"The word got out real quick," Ford said about Hillsborough's deputies.

• • •

An interim leader is trying to straighten out the Pinellas licensing board. But now it has a new problem: It's running out of money.

There are two reasons for that: First, the agency said it cannot collect $1.8 million in unpaid fines, which fuel the agency's budget. Second, while complaints of unlicensed contracting are on the rise, the agency is actually issuing fewer citations.

The agency's tracking system, which has 22,000 complaints, shows that unlicensed violations have declined. For example, in 2013 there were 1,073 citations. That fell to 853 in 2015, a drop of 20 percent.

By November 2016, the agency's yearly citations had dropped to just 538.

That September, as citations decreased, Fischer persuaded the Pinellas County Commission to increase the fine for violators from $500 up to $2,000. Fischer said he needed the higher fine to place liens on violators' properties.

Ford, the former Hillsborough building official, urged the Pinellas licensing board to ask the Pinellas sheriff for help. He also said the agency must undertake a campaign to warn the public about the dangers of hiring unlicensed workers.

"You fight that through education," Ford said.

• • •

The licensing board is an independent agency that does not report to county government. Pinellas County commissioners want the Legislature to put the agency under its control.

Gualtieri, who became sheriff in 2011, blamed the agency's independence for its myriad of problems, such as operating in its own facility, away from county offices.

"I'm not familiar with that operation," the sheriff said. "It had no oversight and no accountability."

Interim licensing board director Gay Lancaster said she plans to ask to meet with the sheriff to ask for help.

"This is wonderful news," Lancaster said after hearing Gualtieri was open to the idea.

"Our board members have expressed their strong desire to do everything the PCCLB can do to deal with unlicensed contractors, and the sheriff is the perfect partner for this effort."

Times senior news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente

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