ESCAMBIA COUNTY, Fla. (WKRG) — The Escambia County Board of Commissioners had a discussion about the Contractor Competency Board following a number of complaints on Banks and LaCoste Construction.
Tim Tolbert, Escambia County Building Official/Building Services Department Director, said part of the problem is that the public has not been informed on what the contractors are required to do.
“It looks like the public is not well-informed on hiring contractors,” said Tolbert. “We recognized that back in April and we immediately started planning workshops and partnering with the Home Builder’s Association. We had one scheduled on the 12th of last month and have another one scheduled next week on the 25th. We hope we have a good attendance. There’s going to be an attorney there to answer questions about contracts and we are just going to go over the requirements that the contractor has and what they should be looking for when they are hiring contractors.”
County attorney Alison Rogers said her office can start providing additional training to the CCB, and went through the different ideas she, Chairman Jeff Bergosh and County Administrator Wes Moreno talked about.
“In that training, we could refresh them on voting conflict of interest memoranda that they are required to fill out when there is a conflict and the ethics and ethical obligation of those board members,” said Rogers. “Mr. Tolbert already indicated that there is a provision in Chapter 40 Florida Statues which essentially is a way by which in the permitting process, additional safeguards can be put into place when there is a contract or at least 10 percent or more of the base price of the repair or remodel is put up front by the homeowner or the property owner. Asking the building official and his office to make more efforts to fast track or double up on CCB meetings, particularly when there is a need to address maybe a backlog or an incredible number of incoming cases. I know they are having a special meeting in September to try and deal with those kinds of issues. We can post on our website when the CCB has taken disciplinary action against contractors. Those meetings are public and can be viewed. So, we can make better efforts for outreach as far as making them easily locatable on the website and posting disciplinary actions or suspensions when they have occurred.”
One idea that Bergosh said is important is posting those disciplinary actions or suspensions on the website.
“This could be something where the citizen is about to hire a contractor and they click on the button on our website and see the list of all of the sustained complaints and what exactly happened so they can make an informed choice when they are hiring a contractor,” said Bergosh. “We don’t have that right now. So, a lot of folks got talked into something. I think it’s an important point.”
There has been talk that Matthew Banks of Banks Construction is still out in the public working without a license. When asked about what the public can do if he is out working, Tolbert said he was at a loss.
“He’s not licensed,” said Tolbert. “So, I can’t imagine someone hiring him. He is not allowed to pull another permit in the county.”
Commissioner Robert Bender said he thinks there should be a meeting with the victims and the state.
“This is one of the more egregious cases that I have ever come across,” said Bender. “I think the closest way to describe this is a Ponzi scheme. Especially if those down payments were spent on other things, I want to see if we can go after his assets and get money back in the hands of our citizens.”
Commissioner Steven Barry said that every victim that files a complaint has a right to be heard.
“You can’t just say that you didn’t get enough time to hear complaints, so you push them to next month,” said Barry. “What happened, and what I think a lot of the frustration came from, from the time that it sounds like there were very verifiable documented losses that we had some number of months that there were still other unsuspected people getting taken advantage of. By the time the board is aware that there are potentially rogue operators, that should be like a red light, hot button issue and hopefully they would want to hear everything about that and then hopefully take action against that to protect our citizens. At its core level, that is what the board exists for, to try and protect our constituents in an expert way that we, as lay people, don’t have the skill set to necessarily do.”
Barry said he and the board are ready to take whatever actions are necessary, now that they are all aware of it, to remedy the situation.
Bergosh then asked Tolbert if there was a way to shut down and suspend contractors after multiple failed project completions. Tolbert said the board does have that option.
“I think that is what we have to do, and then we put them on the Wall of Fame, that way, folks who are looking to hire them can see that,” said Bergosh. “This is a learning experience for all of us.”
Tolbert said the CCB was in shock at the volume of the complaints.
“It really is unprecedented,” Tolbert said. “In my 29 years, I haven’t seen anything like it.”
Alison Creed said she was one of the more than 100 victims of Banks and LaCoste Construction and brought her complaint back in 2020.
“My husband, that day, was not even permitted to finish the story of what happened,” said Creed. “We were shot down that day, with all of the documentation turned in, written, everything. If that complaint would have been submitted this year, in the last couple months, it would have been taken seriously and something would have been done. It is identical to everyone else, but this was over two years ago. We were one of the first people to step up, at least against Mr. LaCoste. I feel like we were made to feel crazy. We were encouraged to take the civil remedies path and so many things this man has done is beyond civil remedies. There needs to be so much change in this board.”
Chris Glaze is another victim of the LaCoste, Banks situation. He said his kids are sleeping in a house that can’t be secured.
“He came and cut open our house and it is open to the elements,” said Glaze. “We can’t get home insurance on our house, and we are about to enter another hurricane season. I have resided to the fact that most people in here are not going to get their money back or made whole. Obviously, something is messed up there’s got to be a way to stop this, as soon as a complaint is brought forward.”
He said these two contractors are just two fish in a much bigger fry.
At the end of the meeting, Bergosh said there is going to be a pressing a metaphorical reset button on the CCB.
“There needs to be a refocusing on how we do things here,” Bergosh said.