LARGO –– Pinellas County sheriff's deputies could soon start hunting for unlicensed contractors who skirt licensing laws and bilk homeowners out of thousands of dollars by performing unfinished and shoddy work.
Sheriff Bob Gualtieri announced Monday that he plans to develop a pilot program so that his deputies can help the troubled Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board crack down on unlicensed contractors.
"It looks like there is a problem that needs to be addressed," Gualtieri said. "There is a lot of unlicensed activity out there that is concerning. I'm going to look for the best way to protect Pinellas residents."
TAMPA BAY TIMES INVESTIGATION: THE PINELLAS COUNTY CONSTRUCTION LICENSING BOARD
The announcement comes a month after private contractors who serve on the licensing agency's governing board complained that Pinellas law enforcement doesn't help them reign in unlicensed offenders.
Board members urged interim executive director Gay Lancaster to ask Gualtieri for help from the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. The board was intrigued by the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, which has a unit that focuses on that county's unlicensed scofflaws.
The licensing board is an independent agency that doesn't report to county government. A series of Tampa Bay Times reports has raised questions about how it performs its job, how it conducts itself and how it treats both consumers and contractors.
Aside from its man-made problems, the agency has also has structural issues: It lacks inspectors and doesn't have the power to enforce the law or collect fines. But law enforcement agencies do have that power.
The sheriff has said that no licensing board member has ever asked his agency for help, including former executive director Rodney Fischer, who resigned Jan. 31 as his 16-year tenure was criticized by county commissioners and lawmakers.
"We've never been approached," Gualtieri reiterated Monday. "They never came to us. Never."
So last week, Gualtieri and Lancaster met to discuss a possible partnership. Contracting without a license is a misdemeanor on the first offenses and a felony the second time. The licensing board has said the problem of unlicensed contractors is out of control in Pinellas.
Gualtieri said he is anxious to assess the scope of the problem once deputies gets involved. If the problem is widespread, the sheriff said he wants to know why the board didn't ask for help sooner. The agency could soon need financial help as well: It is projected to go broke in February because it cannot collect $1.8 million in back fines from unlicensed violators.
The agency's conduct is also the subject of a grand jury investigation and its operations are being scrutinized by the Pinellas County Division of Inspector General.
Gualtieri cautioned it could take a few weeks before he can figure out how the pilot program should work. But he said he is committed to finding the best way to help taxpayers.
He believes deputies can best target offenders in the evenings and weekends when licensing board's investigators don't work. The investigators also only spend a few hours each day on the street, and unlike his agency cannot cover the entire county.
The board's financial woes have put Lancaster between "a rock and a hard place," but the sheriff said he will absorb the cost of a trial program and look for ways to share the cost of a permanent program.
Lancaster said the Sheriff's Office is just the kind of back-up her beleaguered agency needs.
"The law enforcement investigators are what we need," she said. "Law enforcement officers are the eyes and ears of the community."
Contact Mark Puente at [email protected] or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente