A Tampa Bay Times investigation into the Pinellas County Construction Licensing Board has discovered issues relating to the regional organization that has regulated contractors without any government oversight for more than four decades.
State and local leaders said after the publicity that they want the Florida Legislature to abolish the licensing board and fold the work under county government, like other similar boards in the state.
The newspaper’s investigation reported on the fast and loose approach of how the board handles complaints against contractors. The Times also found that homeowners feel cheated, ignored and even stonewalled. Contractors feel the same way and some believe the board targets anyone who speaks out.
State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, said he and Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole, plan to file legislation that would give control of the licensing board and its work to Pinellas County government.
The licensing board’s mission is to protect taxpayers from shoddy contractors.
“Clearly, there’s nobody watching the watchmen,” Brandes said. “That is the best thing we can do.”
Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, said that after reading the Times story, he consulted with local leaders and residents about how to reform the licensing board.
“I stand with the homeowners that demand this anachronistic board be abolished,” he said. “Its responsibilities should be transferred to the County Commission, so it can be run effectively and be responsive to the citizens it serves. I’m working on legislation today to solve this issue.”
The Florida Legislature created the board in 1973, but unlike other local contracting authorities, it does not answer to any government officials.
County commissioners said the lack of government oversight does not serve contractors or Pinellas residents.
Chairwoman Janet Long said she heard frequent complaints from taxpayers who read the Times’ investigation. An agency that regulates thousands of contractors should report to government leaders, not a board of private contractors, she added.
“This is totally outrageous,” she said. “It is not serving the needs of contractors and taxpayers.”
Commissioner Pat Gerard said she wants state lawmakers to take the appropriate steps to protect Pinellas residents and contractors to disband the licensing board and allow the county to oversee the work.
“I’m hoping they get rid of it,” Gerard said about the 1973 legislation. “It makes more sense.”
The Florida Legislature established Pinellas’ unusual licensing board to create uniformity in the county’s construction and fire codes. It has an annual budget of $1.8 million collected from fees and fines, and a paid staff of 10 — an executive director, five office workers and four investigators. Executive director Rodney Fischer, 72, has led the board since 2001.
Fischer did not comment for the Times investigation and has not been quoted directly since the report.
The Times conducted 60 interviews, and reviewed more than 5,000 hours or public records and 17 hours of audio recordings of the licencing board’s deliberations.
The board has 21 directors — all men — of whom 14 are private volunteer contractors. The other seven are building and fire officials from Pinellas County, the newspaper reported.