County strengthens contractor license process
By Eric Kalis
New safeguards designed to prevent Miami-Dade County's building department from issuing fake contractor licenses but might not be sufficient to prevent a repeat of a contractor licensing scandal affecting at least 3,300 properties, county officials say.
The department has instituted three rounds of review of contractor licensing, starting with a cross-check of license applications with the finance office for payment of application fees.
Three employees in the Building Code Compliance Office were charged last week with racketeering and grand theft after they allegedly gave improper licenses to 178 companies in exchange for cash. The suspects are accused of using another employee's pass code to log illegal entries.
Jennifer Messemer, spokeswoman for the Building Code Compliance Office, said Tuesday that the department has created a "triple cross check" system to ensure that improprieties can be detected before work on a property begins.
The Enterprise Technology Services Department will compile a list of construction projects requiring a permit. The list will be cross-referenced with the Construction Trades Qualifying Board's list of licensed contractors. Then the finance department will determine which contractors have paid licensing fees.
Despite touting its value as a safeguard, Ms. Messemer conceded the system probably would not have prevented the alleged issuance of fake licenses.
"This was not an issue of a lack of safeguards," she said. "The person entrusted with our computer security misused his power by entering fraudulent information. It can be equated to identity theft."
Meanwhile, those who operated with fake licenses will be allowed to apply for authorized licenses. But their applications must be approved by the Construction Trades Qualifying Board, which takes improprieties into account when reviewing applications.
The board is responsible for deciding how much an illegal contractor owes the county for illegally obtained permits and property owners for doing unlicensed work. The contractors could be prosecuted for failing to return the money, Ms. Messemer said.
Lani Kahn Drody, president of the Builders Association of South Florida, said her organization is monitoring the county's actions in the wake of the scandal.
"We will be there if the county needs us, but we do not anticipate that," Ms. Kahn Drody said. "It appears the county was diligent once an employee was tipped off and are now giving homeowners clear instructions on what to do if they were affected by these contractors."
With the new safeguard in place, Ms. Messemer said, building officials are expediting transfers of permits and performing free re-inspections of implicated properties.
Homeowners can call the county's 3-1-1 Answer Center for a recommended course of action. Because the work done by the contractors range from miniscule repairs to extensive renovations, appropriate solutions might vary, Ms. Messemer said.
"The department is doing its best to minimize the impact on homeowners by fast-tracking the transfer of permits and re-inspections," Ms. Messemer said. "There is a Web site, www.miamidade.gov/contractors, where homeowners can get the names of improperly licensed contractors and fill out a complaint affidavit to assist in the process."
The county issues licenses in four categories. Candidates must pass a written test to obtain master, journeyman or building licenses.