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No permit test, by popular demand

The outcry that followed an attempt by the county to weed out unlicensed contractors leads commissioners to drop a $65 fee and testing of homeowners.

By WILL VAN SANT
Published March 31, 2004

BROOKSVILLE - County Commissioner Robert Schenck hailed Tuesday as a victorious day for those opposed to government intrusion in their private affairs.

By a unanimous vote, and at Schenck's urging, the board agreed to end requirements that homeowners seeking to do certain types of home improvements pay $65 and pass a written test before being issued a permit by the Building Department.

According to Building Department director Grant Tolbert, the controversial rules were prompted by a desire to stop unlicensed contractors from taking advantage of homeowners.

Rogue contractors, he said, sometimes tell homeowners they will get a sweet deal on jobs if they pull permits themselves and let the contractors do the work. It's a way for unscrupulous contractors to get around licensing requirements.

The only problem is that unlicensed contractors don't pay workers' compensation, Tolbert said, so suckered homeowners can find themselves liable for on-the-job injuries. Also, having no license to protect, such contractors often fail to pay their suppliers, who in turn have put liens on the houses of homeowners caught up in such deals.

So, basing their ordinance on a similar one passed in Palm Beach County and others in the state, the county decided to require homeowners looking to remodel, build additions and do roofing and electrical work to pass a written exam meant to test familiarity with construction codes.

The $65 fee was collected by the county and the money passed along to the private firm that did the testing.

It was hoped the requirements, which took effect on April 1, 2002, would weed out the truly unqualified, who, it was thought, may be seeking permits on behalf of unlicensed contractors.

Instead, the rules led to outrage.

"It has not been, and I think I can say this categorically, very popular with homeowners," Tolbert told the board Tuesday.

"It was simply an overreaction," Republican District 5 commission candidate Lara Bradburn told the board. "It amounted to government intrusion to the fullest."

County Commissioner Tom Mylander said the requirements were well-intended but ill-conceived. Homeowners, as well as the county, Mylander said, have a responsibility to protect themselves from unlicensed contractors.

"The government can't be all things to everybody," he said.

After the vote, Tolbert said that, to his surprise, about 80 percent of those who took the tests had passed. It was only the 20 percent who failed, he said, who really caused a stir.

Although the testing requirements are history, Tolbert said, the county was still working to combat unlicensed contractors and protect housing. With the change, homeowners will no longer have to take a test and pay a fee to get a permit, but they still must apply for one. When they do, Tolbert said, they will be asked when they plan to start work and inspections will be scheduled.

In the past, it was the responsibility of those with permits to contact the Building Department to schedule inspections once work had begun.

Also, homeowners who come in for permits to work on their houses will get some advice from Tolbert and his staff. It's the kind of advice the general public can also use.

"They need to be extremely cautious if someone tells them "If you obtain the permit and I do the work, it will save you money,' " Tolbert said. "Because most of the time, it is not going to save them money."

- Will Van Sant can be reached at 754-6127. Send e-mail to vansant@sptimes.com

[Last modified March 31, 2004, 01:35:39]


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