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Ire builds against lagging contractor

Lauren Resources clients paid for work that wasn't done. The owner says he needs money to right things.

By JENNIFER LIBERTO
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 2, 2003


Last August, Laura Rosete-Arns decided she wanted to throw a pool party for her son when he turned 15 on Oct. 26. But she needed a pool.

She chose a contractor who promised to have one completed in time.

Six months and $11,000 later, her son's birthday has come and gone, and Rosete-Arns' back yard in Spring Hill is marred by a sandy hole with a fiberglass shell that's filled with dark, cloudy rainwater. Mosquitoes hover over it.

"(The contractor) is running around with my money, and all I've got is this," said Rosete-Arns, who cannot allow her 4-year-old to roam the back yard. "Why don't I just sign my paychecks over to him?"

Rosete-Arns is among eight people contacted by the Times who said they have had problems with the general contracting company Lauren Resources. Several have gone to either the state or the Sheriff's Office with their grievances. The customers say the company took their money but did not finish jobs and did not pay subcontractors, who then came to them for payment.

Company owner Stephen Eicholtz of Brooksville said he had financial problems and that his clients had every right to be upset. He said he had every intention of completing the jobs and making amends when he is financially able.

"We overextended ourselves," said Eicholtz, a state-licensed general contractor since 1993. "It's destroyed my character, my credibility with my customers and my customer base."

Eicholtz said he is owed $160,000 from an Orlando construction job; he has placed a lien against the nonprofit organization that owns the property. While he waits for payment, he has had to lay off all of his employees and disconnect his office phone, he said.

But when a contractor overcommits, using income from one job to start others, it is consumers' pockets that are raided.

Several clients gave Eicholtz $12,000 to $20,000 for pools and spas and have had to shell out a few thousand additional dollars to complete work that Lauren Resources said it would do.

"Literally, every step of the way, I kept calling him, telling him how much he owes me, and he wouldn't answer," said Karen Bove of Spring Hill, who, in addition to paying Eicholtz $21,000, gave $2,681 to three subcontractors who had not been paid and had threatened her with liens.

In 2002, Eicholtz pulled permits for 12 pools, spas and other work. Only two of those jobs have passed final county inspections.

Currently, he is not allowed to work in Hernando County because he owes the Development Department several hundred dollars in fines on five code violations. A recent check he wrote to pay off some of the fines bounced, according to the Development Department.

Despite his problems, Eicholtz's failure to complete work is not as daunting as other contractor problems that have surfaced over the years in Hernando, said county development director Grant Tolbert.

"Of course, to the individual people, it's very serious to them. But in comparison to those homebuilders who have left 50, 60 or 80 homes in various states of completion, this would not be that serious," Tolbert said.

Eicholtz's problems seem to be financial, not criminal, and criminal intent is difficult to prove in such cases, Tolbert said.

The Sheriff's Office investigated Rosete-Arns' case and concluded that Eicholtz's lack of action did not merit fraud or theft charges.

Rosete-Arns disagrees.

"I'm going to see that he doesn't rob anybody else, if it's the last thing I do," said Rosete-Arns, who is attempting to find another company to finish her pool.

Eicholtz's problems stretch into Pasco County. Port Richey homeowner Ken Sisto took out a $20,000 mortgage last July to pay for a fiberglass pool addition. Now, green, murky water fills his pool, which he recently paid another contractor to enclose with a screen to prevent neighborhood children from falling in.

"There shouldn't be anyone in any business who is allowed to do this," said Sisto, who paid Lauren Resources $18,000 and has fought threats of subcontractor liens. "This guy took my money and used it on another job."

Sisto and other customers say they have complained to the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation, whose spokeswoman declined to discuss any possible investigations.

Eicholtz insists that he plans to right his wrongs and reimburse his clients for expenses he should have paid. He blames his woes on his involvement as a subcontractor for the HUD-financed apartment complex in Orlando, sponsored by the nonprofit Orlando Volunteers of America Elderly Housing.

"The issue comes down to money," said Eicholtz, who expects a resolution within two months. "Our cash flow is tight until problems with this HUD project are cleared up."

A HUD spokesperson confirmed that Eicholtz was a subcontractor for the Orlando project and that there had been delays connected with it.

The only people more furious with Lauren Resources than Eicholtz's clients are his subcontractors, many of whom are also owed thousands of dollars.

"We've already paid for the material and employees to do his jobs," said Richard Horstmanshof, spokesman for Gaudette Electric Inc. of Homosassa Springs, which Lauren Resources owes a "considerable" amount of money.

"When you go into business for yourself, you have to have some kind of borrowing leverage or reserves," Horstmanshof said.

Eicholtz's situation is uncommon in the pool-building industry, said Dan Johnson, president-elect of the Sarasota-based Florida Pool and Spa Association.

"The pool business is good and has been good for a number of years," said Johnson, who owns Swim Inc. of Sarasota. "There has been no extraordinary amount of business failures."

-- Jennifer Liberto covers business and development in Hernando County and can be reached at 848-1434. Send e-mail to liberto@sptimes.com .

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