LARGO — Starting Monday, the troubled Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board will no longer investigate contractors accused of ripping off homeowners.
For the next six months, the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office will become the first line of defense against all contractors operating in the county.
TAMPA BAY TIMES INVESTIGATION: THE PINELLAS COUNTY CONSTRUCTION LICENSING BOARD
This week the Sheriff's Office and the licensing board struck an agreement that will transform the way Pinellas County has investigated all contractors since 1973. The accord means every complaint will be looked at and dealt with, the sheriff said, rather than languishing for months, which often proved to be the case at the licensing board.
"The goal is to make sure people don't get ripped off," Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said of the six-month pilot program.
While law enforcement steps up its role, the licensing agency's role will be mostly limited to investigating permitting complaints and issuing contractors' licenses.
This new agreement comes after a series of Tampa Bay Times reports that raised questions about how the licensing board performs its mission, follows state law and whether it fairly adjudicates disputes between consumers and contractors.
A lieutenant, a sergeant and a squad of deputies are undergoing training this week. Here's how the new program will work:
• The Sheriff's Office will review and classify every complaint against a contractor, then determine which agency is best suited to investigate the case.
• Cases where homeowners believe they have lost money from licensed or unlicensed contractors will be investigated by the Pinellas County Consumer Protection department.
That county agency works closely with prosecutors to determine whether criminal charges are merited. If contractors are prosecuted, homeowners can be compensated in the form of restitution.
• Deputies will investigate unlicensed contracting activity that does not result in a financial loss, such as licensed contractors hiring unlicensed subcontractors for jobs. First offense is a misdemeanor and the second is a felony.
• The licensing board will continue to investigate permitting problems. It will also keep handling its administrative duties: issuing licenses and testing contractors.
In the past, contractors and homeowners have said that the licensing board often ignored their complaints and rarely disclosed the outcomes from those cases. Gualtieri said that will change.
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The Sheriff's Office will also track all the complaints against contractors, a task the licensing agency also struggled to perform. The agreement will require the licensing board to provide the Sheriff's Office with the results of every complaint sent back to the board to handle.
"There has to be accountability," Gualtieri said. "The loop has to be closed on every complaint. That's the way we do it. There is a trail all the way to the conclusion."
The licensing board's interim executive director, Gay Lancaster, called the agreement "transformative" and said the agency is looking forward to partnering with the Sheriff's Office. She praised Gualtieri for "stepping up" to help Pinellas County residents.
"We're getting to maximize the resources that benefit the community," she said.
But that also raises the question: If deputies and consumer protection investigators are handling contracting complaints, then what does Pinellas need a construction licensing board for?
Gualtieri said that is a question legislators will have to decide when they discuss how to reform the agency in 2018.
"It legitimately raises the question ...to see what is necessary," he said.
The Florida Legislature created the board in 1973, so only it can reform the board. The agency reports to no other government body and remains the only one of its kind in the state. Aside from its man-made problems, the agency also has structural ones: It lacks inspectors and does not have the power to enforce the law or collect fines. But law enforcement agencies do have that power.
Former executive director Rodney Fischer stepped down Jan. 31 after running the agency for 16 years. Legislators and county commissioners alike have complained about his management of the agency. The Times also reported that Fischer met privately with contractors to settle fines and disciplinary matters –– even though the governing board is supposed to approve all discipline.
Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe launched a grand jury investigation into the agency last week. The Pinellas County Division of Inspector General is also looking at its finances and operations. McCabe plans to ask the grand jury to propose possible way to reform the agency, which would require Legislature approval.
The sheriff's plan also establishes a system to police contractors if the licensing agency were to shutdown before the Legislature meets in 2018. The agency is owed $1.8 million in fines it cannot collect. It could run out of funds and close its doors in February without a bailout.
The issue of policing unlicensed contractors emerged as a sore spot for the licensing agency's governing board when members complained in May that it is the only agency that targets violators. However, the consumer protection agency also investigates cases and refers them for prosecution.
Consumer protection operations manager Doug Templeton called the agreement the "missing link" that will help make sure no issues get dropped when homeowners file complaints.
Gualtieri said that while he explored ways the Sheriff's Office could work with the board to target unlicensed contractors, he heard complaints from residents, contractors and attorneys.
That shows "a huge void and people are starving for a way to hold (violators) accountable," the sheriff said, calling the board "woefully understaffed" to handle the problem.
St. Petersburg contractor Darren Clark frequently reports unlicensed contractors to the board, but he said the agency ignored his complaints. He praised the sheriff for offering a new way to help homeowners and licensed contractors.
"This is long overdue," Clark said. "At least the Sheriff's Office has teeth to go after people."
Contact Mark Puente at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2996. Follow @MarkPuente