County coming to grips with illegal contractors

esf headshotROCKVILLE – Small business owners say they’re being hurt by unlicensed contractors, but the state says it doesn’t have enough people to adequately police a problem they admit exists.
State and local government departments in Maryland answer complaints from consumers victimized by home-improvement contractors doing work illegally without a license from the Maryland Home Improvement Commission, but small business owners across the state remain unhappy with the results of the commission.

Dave O’Connor, owner of O’Connor’s Painting Service in Gaithersburg, said MHIC’s and Montgomery County’s Office of Consumer Protection’s process receiving and answering complaints has inherent problems. For one, he doesn’t think a complaint-driven process catches enough unlicensed contractors.
“I think it’s simple,” O’Connor said. “They could have just one guy in the county just drive around and stop. That’s all he does. He just drops around and asks, ‘Do you work on this house? Let me see your license.’ Verify it, boom, move onto the next one. The word would get out lickety-split that the county is investigating. I don’t think they need that much manpower.”
Currently, MHIC answers complaints made by customers, competitors or people who notice contractors violating home-improvement law, said Steven Smitson, director of MHIC and the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. Once a complaint is made, MHIC investigates the claim. If the commission finds the contractor is unlicensed, it issues a civil citation and also works to file criminal complaints. A first offense gets a $1,500 citation, while the criminal violation is a misdemeanor resulting in six months for the first offense. 
MHIC’s investigators only investigate complaints, and they don’t go out looking for unlicensed contractors, Smiton said. From July 1, 2012, through January 31, 2013, MHIC received 370 complaints against unlicensed contractors.
“All of us have cell phones,” Smitson said, “and if we’re out and we happen to see a yard sign without the license number or a vehicle we’ll take a picture, but that’s really not policy. That’s more just what folks here do.”
There are no plans to send out investigators to neighborhoods because the commission lacks the resources, Smitson said. Instead, the goal is to be as effective as possible with limited resources, although he conceded more can always be done.
On the county level, Eric Friedman, director of the Office of Consumer Protection, said investigators for the office primarily act on complaints. In 2012, 65 out of 233 total home improvement complaints were made against unlicensed contractors. 
Similar to MHIC, if investigators drive around and spot something which looks questionable or notice a MHIC license number is missing, they may stop question the contractor. 
The Office of Consumer Protection currently employs 15 people, Friedman said. The office downsized after the county made budget cuts during the recession. Citing a lack of resources, Friedman said the office is unable to have a fulltime investigator go around the county looking for unlicensed contractors.
“They say they don’t have the resources to do it, but to me I don’t even believe they’ve tried,” O’Connor said. “I think it could fund itself easily. That’s all they have to do and then word gets out on the street.”
Ralph Vines, programs administrator for the Office of Consumer Protection, said there are several problems with having a fulltime investigator whose sole purpose is to locate unlicensed contractors. For one, Vines said, unlicensed contractors are breaking the law, so there is a fear they would attack a non-uniform investigator. Another problem is unlicensed contractors don’t always use trucks or vans—they often use their own personal vehicle. Finally, a majority of home improvement is done to the interior of homes, and investigators can’t just knock on doors, Vines said.
As for the claim that the investigator’s position would fund itself through all of the fines the county would issue, Vines said he disagrees. Having an investigator patrol neighborhoods is not something Vines said he opposes, but the office needs to look at its resources to make the best decisions.
“You have to understand the fining system is sort of like saying when the police go out and write traffic tickets, the citation doesn’t come back in that format,” Vines said. “It goes into the county’s general fund. The office itself would not get revenue back from going out and giving fines.”
Overall, Smitson said the best thing MHIC can do is educate homeowners. The first thing a homeowner should do is verify whether or not a potential contractor is licensed. After the homeowner finds out, Smitson said homeowners should conduct a job interview, even if the contractor is licensed.
“Ask very specific questions about their work and their experience, especially if it’s a more complicated job,” Smitson said. “Have they done other jobs of this size and this scope or this complexity? What I tell people is you would never buy a used car without taking it for a test ride. You want to be as vigilant as possible when you’re choosing somebody to come into your home, to work on your home that is so crucial, which for most people is your most important investment in life.”
The biggest hurdle for the Office of Consumer Protection is outreach, Friedman said, because many people do not even know about the office. O’Connor said he has never heard much about the office. Friedman said the office holds public forums and online chats, but it is always trying to figure out how to get its name out more.
Despite the efforts of MHIC and the Office of Consumer Protection, O’Connor thinks not enough is done to catch unlicensed contractors, while the government has no problems holding licensed contractors accountable for their actions. O’Connor said he doesn’t accept the excuse there are not enough resources, and he he won’t be content until the government is proactive about stopping unlicensed contractors.
“When they say they can’t (send out an investigator) I don’t buy it,” O’Conor said. “I just really don’t think it’s a big deal.”

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