Lee County is doing everything it can to get rid of unlicensed contractors who take money from their victims and perform inferior work.
But there are some who do exceptional work and are just trying to make an honest living. They just aren’t educated on the rules.
That’s what a number of Lee County construction leaders and code enforcement officers discussed with State Rep. Dane Eagle (R-77), who spoke Thursday morning in City Council chambers at Cape Coral City Hall.
Unlicensed contractors continue to be a problem, judging by the 21 people they caught in a sting last November.
The main idea, Eagle said, was to make sure the citizens are protected and their homes are constructed according to safety guidelines. That means getting those unlicensed contractors who are hurting people off the streets and those who are competent licensed.
“When it comes to unlicensed contractors, it’s an education issue. We need to let them know there are good jobs out there. We have a shortage of labor and we’re trying to help them,” Eagle said. “Let’s get these people licensed so that they’re contributing to the economy.”
Eagle said his cohorts in Tallahassee are trying to put more teeth into legislation on repeat offenders by making it a felony if you’re caught multiple times.
He is also trying to reduce the consequences of the more competent contractors in terms of fines and put it toward getting licensed and making more income.
Paul Gates, licensing investigator for code compliance, has more than 25 years of construction experience and knows a good job when he sees one. He said dealing with the statutes they deal with that makes his job more effective.
“We’re limited by law in what we can do when someone has been harmed. I take it personally when someone gets taken and there’s no recourse than what’s essentially a traffic ticket,” Gates said.
During the recession, Gates said the city tried to be kinder and gentler to unlicensed contractors, since everyone was in the same boat. As things have improved, the city has taken off its muzzle.
Currently, fines for unlicensed contractors are between $1,000 and $2,000, following state statute. Gates would like to see the more qualified ones get licensed, which is why he works with them.
“I can see what kind of work they’re doing. We tell them we’re still going to cite them, but tell them what to do to get their license,” Gates said. “When they get their license and set a court date, we’ll tell a judge and have the fines reduced or dismissed.”
There are some barriers, however. Some workers can’t speak English or have a felony or don’t have the money to get one. It costs $220 for a Cape Coral license more than that from the state.
Eagle said he would look into possible making licenses less expensive, as he doesn’t want to impede people’s desire to have a career.
While hiring an unlicensed contractor may provide a quick fix, the long-term consequences aren’t worth it. Gates suggests people looking for a contractor get three bids, make sure they’re insured and that they have a license.
Brenda Thomas, executive vice president of the Lee County Builder’s Industry Association, said those are musts, as well as being ethical.
“Unlicensed activity does nobody any good. Too many people can be harmed. I’m glad for the stance Eagle took and am excited he has been a great supporter of the industry,” Thomas said. “We need to get these non-licensed but qualified workers through the cumbersome process and help remove the barriers. We need them right now.”