MANATEE COUNTY -- The Florida Legislature recently passed a bill allowing all local jurisdictions to quadruple the maximum fine for unlicensed contractors from $500 to $2,000 per incident.
The bill by state Rep. Halsey Beshears, R-Monticello, took effect July 1. Bradenton is among the cities in Manatee and Sarasota counties with plans to use the new law to go after unlicensed contractors.
Bradenton Mayor Wayne Poston said it's difficult to measure how widespread the problem is but the tougher new legislation should help city officials crack down on it.
"We're going to be very proactive in this," said Poston. "My main concern is that we have these gypsy contractors who prey on the elderly and do shoddy work."
Although unlicensed contractors usually offer homeowners less-expensive services, the homeowner will pay more in the end if contractors do a bad job or do not have the necessary permits, said Alan Anderson, executive vice president of the Home Builders Association.
Anderson said residents should know what to look for if they suspect someone is working without a license.
"If you have electrical work and it's not up to code and it causes a fire, then you are going to be hard-pressed to have insurance cover it," Anderson said. "You could be out of the claim."
Anderson said it's a red flag if a contractor says they don't need a permit or if the contractor asks you to pull the permit yourself. A homeowner can pull a permit if doing work themselves but it's illegal for the contractor to work under a permit provided by a homeowner.
Jeffrey Camden, Bradenton building official, said the city Building Department customer service specialist is earning certification in contractor licensing as is a Code Enforcement Department employee.
"I want them to be as proficient and as expert as they can possible be," said Camden.
Poston said the city will also certify a police officer as an unlicensed contractor investigator.
Camden said residents must perform their own due diligence when dealing with contractors, but should call city officials with any questions.
"We are always available,"
said Camden. "We can tell them, yes or no, that kind of work requires a license."
Palmetto City Clerk Jim Freeman said the city usually refers this issue to the Department of Business and Professional Regulations.
"We're researching the latest law and the further impact on Palmetto," said Freeman.
Cindi Blake, Permitting Services Divisions manager, said the county issues about 10 citations a week for unlicensed work, aiding and abetting or working without a permit. With each citation the violator is given a "stop-work" order.
"We have officers in the field," said Blake "We go behind all the builder's permits to make sure they are in compliance."
In February 2012, the Bradenton Herald reported Manatee County arrested 14 people for unlicensed contracting work.
Nick Azzara, Manatee County public information officer, said in August the Building and Development Service Department will produce a 3-minute video designed to raise awareness about the complications involved in hiring an unlicensed contractor.
Manatee County has teamed with other local jurisdictions to combat the problem. Anderson and officials from Bradenton, Manatee County and Sarasota attend a monthly meeting to discuss unlicensed contractors and trends in their area. The group also shares a database containing this information.
"Several agencies are involved to manage the problem," said Anderson. "You shouldn't be doing work unless you have a license."
Janey Tate, city of Bradenton and Palmetto reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041. You can follow her on Twitter at Janey_Tate.