Local News

Monday, Jan 25 2010 06:53 PM

Pool builders ask city to crack down on unlicensed contractors

BY STEVEN MAYER, Californian staff writer smayer@bakersfield.com

Mario Medina has been in the swimming pool business for 36 years. Now the owner of Crystal Pools is afraid his business may not make it to 37.

Medina and other pool contractors attended a city of Bakersfield Budget and Finance Committee meeting Monday to ask the city for stronger measures to keep unlicensed contractors from squeezing them out of the market.

"It's really affecting my livelihood," Medina told City Council members Harold Hanson, Irma Carson and Ken Weir, who sit on the committee. "For the first time in my life I'm on unemployment."

To combat what they say is unfair business practices by unlicensed pool builders, 15 area pool contractors have formed a coalition called the Kern County Contractors Association.

Members have hired Bakersfield attorney Bob Joyce to assist them. Joyce said he would like the city to require pool contractors -- especially so-called owner-builders -- to provide proof that workers' compensation insurance is being provided to all those working on the project. In a case where licensed subcontractors are being used, the license number of all sub-contractors with proof of workers' compensation would have to be given to the city before a permit could be issued.

Homeowners, Joyce said, are often encouraged by unlicensed contractors to apply for the permit under the guise that the homeowner is doing the work without employees or subcontractors. Requiring more information during the permitting process will compel owners to "think twice" before going outside the law, he said.

"This will force owners to think about, 'What am I getting into?'" Joyce said. "This will level the playing field."

Under the law, property owners may build additions or improvements on their own without having a contractors license. But too often, contractors say, the work is really being done by unlicensed contractors and employees not covered by workers' compensation.

Taxes are not withheld, Joyce said. And the homeowner unknowingly becomes liable for injuries to workers.

"Homeowners insurance does not cover workers' compensation," said Kirsten Andreassend, an enforcement representative with the Statewide Investigation Fraud Team, which enforces contractor violations for the Contractors State License Board.

Andreassend and her partner have a lot of ground to cover.

They are responsible for enforcement in Kern, Tulare, Kings and Inyo counties -- about 25,000 square miles, she said.

Contractors like Medina and Paradise Pool Service owner Joel Chrisco said the few violators who are prosecuted typically receive a "slap on the wrist," then go right back to work.

And they're taking a bigger bite out of the total business than ever before.

According to city records, 28 percent of pool permits issued in 2008 were issued to "owner-builders." Last year the ratio jumped to 34.6 percent.

City Building Director Phil Burns told the committee he's reluctant to see the city get involved in the enforcement end.

"Our responsibility is to enforce state building codes, not state licensing guidelines," Burns said.

But Joyce's argument that the problem could be "nipped in the bud" during the permit process appeared to hold some sway with committee members -- though he didn't get everything he asked for.

In the end, all three committee members agreed that the contractors association should work with the city attorney's office to redraft some of the language on the permit applications to make it clear to those who pull "owner-builder" permits the full implications and obligations associated with those permits.

"I'm a firm believer we really need to get cracking on this," said committee Chairman Hanson.

Medina couldn't agree more.

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