ESCAMBIA COUNTY, Fla. (WKRG) — With hundreds of complaints piling in against Pensacola contractors Matthew Banks and Jesse LaCoste, the Escambia County Contractor Competency Board has been thrust into the spotlight. Many residents are saying the CCB didn’t do enough to stop the contractors from taking advantage of them.
WKRG News 5 talked with Escambia County’s Building Services Director Tim Tolbert to see what goes into vetting a contractor and how the CCB works.
Tolbert said to become a contractor in the first place, an applicant has to meet certain criteria and apply to take an exam.
“They have to go before the board for them to even be allowed to test,” Tolbert said. “If they pass, they can be licensed to work in Escambia County. You have to have four years of experience, and it has to be verifiable.”
If a homeowner files a complaint against a contractor, they will file the complaint with Tolbert’s office, he said. There will then be an investigation into the complaint.
“If there is evidence that backs up the complaint then it will go before the roundtable,” Tolbert said. “That is a meeting before the Contractor Competency Board meeting that includes myself, the county attorney, the chairman of the CCB, and the board secretary. During that meeting, we discuss if it meets the requirements to go to a probable cause hearing. If the board finds probable cause during that meeting, then it will go to a disciplinary hearing and they are usually a month apart.”
With the roundtable meeting, Tolbert said it is not an open meeting, but a closed meeting with staff to discuss if the complaint meets certain criteria.
“The complaint has to be talking about a code violation, or some kind of financial mismanagement, or a violation of the board of statutes before it can ever go to the CCB,” Tolbert said. “If it doesn’t meet any of that criteria, then it is just a civil issue. I’ll give an example, we had a roofing contractor install shingles, meet the code, get their inspection and everything is good, but the homeowner realizes that is the wrong color. Well, they meet the code, they meet the statutes, and they meet everything that we enforce. We don’t care what color it is, that is not something we regulate. That is a civil issue.”
Many residents are saying that the process takes too long with the CCB and county leaders are looking at scheduling more meetings to get through the backlog of complaints. Tolbert said it takes that long because it comes down to due process.
“That is the process that is laid out,” Tolbert said. “It is due process, but due process can be changed. That would be based on the advice of the county attorney and whatever needs to happen there. I think they are looking at that. They are looking at maybe having a probable cause hearing and disciplinary in the same meeting.”
Another problem that Tolbert mentioned is that some complaints carry over into different jurisdictions.
“For example, one complaint may be in the City of Pensacola and that is a different inspection agency,” Tolbert said. “We don’t have all of the information at our fingertips. Plus, the inspection personnel may need to testify and getting them scheduled is challenging. There is also an appeal time frame that we have to abide by. Sometimes, it doesn’t work out where they can get on the very next meeting because of laws. I assure you, it is going as quickly as it can, until the rules are changed.”
When it comes down to Banks and LaCoste, or any other contractor slipping through the cracks, Tolbert said they didn’t. He said they filled out all of the applications and tested well enough to become licensed.
“We have done a little research and it looks like at the end of 2021 or maybe the start of 2022 is where everything started going south for them,” Tolbert said. “My brother has friends that Matt Banks built a house for and they couldn’t be happier. They met all the criteria, I just can’t figure it out. Something is up.”
As of today, only Banks has been arrested for fraud and according to the Pensacola Police Department, LaCoste has no warrant out for his arrest and never has had one.
Pensacola resident Melissa Pino said in a recent Gary Sansing Public Forum that nothing is going to move forward until State Attorney Ginger Madden starts focusing on these cases.
“The CCB can do nothing about this if the State Attorney’s Office is not pressing forward as hard as they can with this situation,” Pino said. “I hope that if Ms. Madden is listening, this is going to be one of my last appeals to her, to please take care of this organized system to defraud. Go back and revisit Teri Nock’s case on the organized system to defraud. You gentlemen can’t do anything about this if she is not going to go full steam ahead on giving these people some kind of recourse. What you can do is clean up your own Contractor Competency Board. You’re the only ones who can do it. Tim Tolbert cannot do it.”
Escambia County Commissioner Lumon May said the responsibility of the contractor issues falls on the board of commissioners.
“What has happened to the citizens of Escambia County because of these contractors is inexcusable,” May said. “We are going to do something about this. There are people who have lost their life savings. I’m not going to put it on Larry Downs Jr., or the competency board. At the end of the day, it resides on this board and we need to make the decision to do something for these citizens who have been taken advantage of.”
Currently, the county is looking for volunteers to serve on the CCB. They wrote in an announcement Friday that one applicant will be appointed for service beginning in November 2022.
Residents interested in serving on the CCB are asked to submit a resume and cover letter to Jennifer Hampton, Director’s Aide, Building Services Department, 3363 W. Park Place, Pensacola, Fla., 32505 or firstname.lastname@example.org by the close of business on Friday, Sept. 16, 2022.
The duties of the CCB include accepting contractor applications, administering contractor examinations, and issuing and recording Certificates of Competency and renewals; making an annual report; investigating complaints against contractors; and presiding over contractor disciplinary proceedings. CCB members serve a three-year term and meet the first Wednesday morning of every month. Members receive $50 per meeting as compensation for their services.
The CCB is currently seeking only one member at the moment, a lay consumer member.
A lay consumer member shall not at the time of appointment be, and shall have never previously been, a member or practitioner of a profession regulated by the board or a member of any closely related profession. The term “member of any closely related profession” includes but is not limited to carpenters, painters, certified building inspectors, commercial construction supervisors, interior designers/decorators, fencers, landscapers, building material suppliers, and construction quality managers.