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

Rodney Fischer, center, is the former executive director of the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board, seen here during a February meeting. The licensing board is struggling financially and will shut down in February if it doesn't get a bridge loan. But the Pinellas County Commission isn't keen on bailing the agency out. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Jun. 13, 2017

LARGO — Already saddled with controversy and a grand jury investigation, the latest budget projections paint a grim picture for the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board:

The agency will go broke in February.

The independent agency, created by the Florida Legislature in 1973 to crack down on bad contractors in the county, has siphoned $400,000 from reserves just to stay open. Meanwhile it's down to 1½ inspectors (one is part-time) and isn't issuing — or collecting — enough fines to stay solvent.

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

During next week's budget hearing in front of the Pinellas County Commission the agency will likely ask taxpayers for a loan to stay afloat.

But that possibility was dismissed by four county commissioners on Thursday.

Commissioners said a loan could put taxpayers at risk since the agency operates outside county government, with no oversight, so they would have no say in how the licensing board would use those funds.

Instead, the county commission blamed the Pinellas legislative delegation for not moving quickly enough in February to place the licensing board under county control when the Tampa Bay Times first raised questions about the agency's leadership and operations. Legislators said it was too late to draw up legislation and that they would try again next year.

Officials have complained that Pinellas' independent licensing board has long resisted cooperating with other Pinellas agencies. Commissioner Charlie Justice said that since the independent agency was created by the Legislature, then that's where it should go for a bailout.

"I want to know if the licensing board has requested such aid from the state," he said. "They are a state-created entity and the Legislature and governor have financial resources much greater than the Pinellas County taxpayers."

Commissioner Dave Eggers echoed that: "(The agency) should look to the state for the bridge loan."

"I do not support funding the PCCLB unless the county has significant oversight," commissioner Ken Welch said.

Commissioner Pat Gerard, however, said she would support a loan from the county because the agency serves "a vital purpose" for residents and contractors.

The licensing board operates solely on what it raises in license fees and fines from contractors. But it has no power to force them to pay up and is owed $1.8 million it cannot collect.

Revenue from fees, fines and citations has also decreased since fiscal year 2016, while projections show expenses rising more than $250,000 in the next fiscal year.

A series of Times reports raised many questions about how the agency fulfilled its mission, followed state law and its own rules, and whether it dealt fairly with consumers and contractors alike under the tenure of former executive director Rodney Fischer.

The Times also reported that Fischer met privately with contractors to deal with fines and disciplinary matters. But the consumers who filed the complaints and the board that oversees the agency never knew that.

Fischer stepped down Jan. 31. Aside from a grand jury investigation, the Pinellas County Office of the Inspector General is also reviewing the agency's finances and operations.

Those issues, county commission chair Janet Long said, is why she is "worried about putting good money down a rabbit hole."

The agency's interim director, Gay Lancaster, said she will tell commissioners next week that revenue has recently increased from improved collection efforts. She said she understands commissioners' concerns about oversight and wanting guarantees to protect taxpayers.

But Lancaster said she cannot "guarantee" that the agency, which employs eight people, will collect enough to stay open without help.

"I can only guarantee that we will work hard," she said. "We are working to restore the public's trust."

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

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