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Pinellas licensing board asks Sen. Jack Latvala for $500,000 loan

State Sen . Jack Latvala, R- Clearwater, is being asked to help the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board get $500,000 from the state so it can stay open beyond February.  [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
State Sen . Jack Latvala, R- Clearwater, is being asked to help the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board get $500,000 from the state so it can stay open beyond February. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Jul. 24, 2017

The troubled Pinellas County agency that regulates contractors wants Sen. Jack Latvala to help it get a $500,000 lifeline from the state to stay afloat.

Without that bridge loan, the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board is projected to go broke in February and shutdown, said interim executive director Gay Lancaster.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: The Pinellas agency that's supposed to crack down on bad contractors is about to go broke

Latvala said he's thinking about it.

"We're going to look into it," said the powerful Clearwater Republican who is contemplating running for governor in 2018. "I'm going to see what I can do to help."

His fellow legislators, however, are not so keen on bailing out the troubled agency.

"It is beyond saving," said state Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. "It has exceptionally poor oversight from its board. It's ineffective and mismanaged."

Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, said it's premature to talk about money at this point.

The agency is going broke because it doesn't have the power to collect the fines it hands out. In fact, it is owed $1.8 million in unpaid fines. It also has less inspectors these days to hand out those fines.

Sprowls said that before there's any talk of a legislative loan he first wants to hear from the grand jury that is set this week to start examining the agency. The grand jury will try to find out if any of the agency's staff broke the law. But it's also expected to issue recommendations on how to reform the licensing board.

Lancaster told the licensing agency's governing board last week that she expects the loan request to be denied. But she's still looking at other options to keep the agency operating.

Her back-up plan is to ask the Pinellas County Commission for a loan.

Florida law allows the county to shift money every two years from the agency into its general fund. Since 1994, the county has swept up $487,160 from the agency, Lancaster said.

So, she reasoned, why shouldn't the county help bail out the agency, since the agency has been paying into the general fund for the past two decades?

"This strikes me as a reasonable request," she said. "It's been done before for other agencies."

But the licensing board is unlike any other in the state. It was created by the Legislature in 1973 to register contractors. The independent agency doesn't report to county government.

Many county commissioners and legislators are asking whether that independence is still a good idea. A series of Tampa Bay Times reports has raised questions about how the agency goes about its job, follows state law and whether it even fairly adjudicates disputes between consumers and contractors.

Lancaster was appointed in February after former executive director Rodney Fischer stepped down Jan. 31 and announced his retirement. Under Fischer's tenure, the Times found that the agency kept shoddy records, violated the Sunshine Law, haphazardly disciplined contractors and failed to keep consumers informed or even respond to their complaints.

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The Times also reported that Fischer even met privately with contractors to settle fines and disciplinary matters — even though the governing board is supposed to approve all disciplinary measures.

The agency's independence is also why last month the Pinellas County Commission told Lancaster that they fear spending county tax dollars to help what they believe to be a mismanaged agency. Commissioners want the Legislature to fold the agency under county government, so they can oversee it. But that can't happen until the 2018 session.

Until then, they told Lancaster, she should ask the Legislature for help.

The licensing agency's governing board met Tuesday. The board had long rubber-stamped Fischer's decisions. Some members said they weren't aware of what he was doing at all.

But at this meeting, they started questioning the agency's expenses.

They asked, for example, why the agency pays $45,000 annually to lease office space in Largo.

Several members said the agency should ask Pinellas County government to rent it cheaper office space. But Fischer rejected that same cost-saving idea in 2014 and instead signed a five-year lease to stay in Largo.

The board members also asked why the independent agency must pay an 18 percent increase –– $566,090 this year and $669,470 next year –– to the county for technology, payroll, human resources and other services.

Those costs will rise even more, Lancaster warned, if the agency hired vendors to provide those same services.

Board member Jack Joyner, owner of Jack Joyner Heating & Air Conditioning in Clearwater, said the agency will have to "pass the costs on" from any loan to licensed contractors. He stressed the agency still provides vital services.

"The county needs this board," her said. "I don't care what I read. We're not here to make people happy."

Contact Mark Puente at mpuente@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente

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