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State: Hopeful's firm not insured

Seascape Custom Homes, owned by County Commission candidate William "Alonzo'' Merritt, must have proof of workers' compensation insurance by Thursday or face fines.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 1, 2000


County Commission hopeful William "Alonzo" Merritt learned Tuesday that he faced thousands of dollars in state fines because he lacked workers' compensation insurance for his employees.

The news came one day after the Hernando County Development Department ordered Merritt's company, Seascape Custom Homes, to cease all work because it appeared not to have a proper contractor's license from the state or occupational license from the county.

In both instances, Merritt's business partner -- Brooksville contractor Dennis Bartina -- had the items in question. However, he had not transferred the licenses or insurance policies to Seascape, leaving that company operating without those since it opened in May 1999.

"When we pull up for Seascape Custom Homes, nothing comes up for insurance," said Janice Freeman, Tampa district supervisor for the Florida Division of Workers' Compensation Compliance. Bartina's individual insurance does not cover Seascape, she said.

If Merritt, the Republican nominee for commission District 5, can provide to the state proof by Thursday that he had a policy for Seascape Custom Homes, "he's fine," Freeman said. If not, she said, the fines could run into the thousands based on a formula that essentially charges double the premiums Merritt would have paid had he obtained the appropriate insurance.

The division can go back up to three years in calculating the penalty. It also will not allow Seascape to resume business until it has an active policy.

Merritt, who asserted Monday, "I've got all the workman's comp and all the insurance," rushed to Tallahassee late Tuesday with Bartina to try to "take care of" the situation, said Bill Cope, Merritt's campaign manager.

"It's a misunderstanding," Cope said. "The workers' comp is in effect. It's just in Dennis Bartina's name."

He asked a St. Petersburg Times reporter not to write a story about this latest twist for 48 hours to give Merritt time to fix the problem.

In the meantime, Merritt's District 5 opponent said she was "gloating a bit" over the turn of events.

"I guess the gloves have got to come off," said Mary Aiken, the Democrat running against Merritt on Tuesday.

Aiken said her primary concern was that people working for Merritt could have been injured on the job and they would not have been covered for their medical expenses.

"That's lousy," said Aiken, who has championed a living wage for county employees and firms that contract with the county.

Moreover, she said, residents deserve a commissioner who runs his business by the rules.

The issue will become part of her campaign, Aiken said.

"I just have to figure out some way of putting it," she said.

Outgoing District 5 Commissioner Paul Sullivan, who lost to Merritt in an October runoff, sighed and banged his head on his desk when he heard the news about Merritt's seeming business transgressions.

Sullivan said he did not look into Merritt's business practices during his campaign because he wanted to keep the focus on his own record.

"I thought I would be successful on my understanding of the issues. I didn't think checking into his background was necessary," Sullivan said.

"Certainly if in fact all this is true, then it affects the veracity of everything he has said in his campaign so far."

He and other commissioners have asked County Administrator Paul McIntosh how a company could do construction on at least three homes without having the proper insurance, licenses and permits.

The county needs to police its businesses more closely, they said.

"I'm going to inquire as to why we didn't discover this earlier and what steps we can take to make sure this doesn't occur (again)," McIntosh said.

According to state law, a construction business must have at least one licensed contractor in its employ to supervise its work. All businesses must have workers' compensation insurance for all its employees, although construction companies may exempt up to three corporate officers from the coverage.

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