When Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill preempting the requirement of local occupational licensing in Florida, he set off a firestorm among Keys contractors and tradesmen. The bill deals with specialty licenses for people who paint buildings, or put down pavers and even landscapers — not general contractors or plumbers or electricians or any other tradesmen doing work with life safety implications, who are already licensed by the state. 

Currently, there are about 400 specialty license tradesmen registered in Monroe County. And, as of July 1, the county is no longer issuing any new licenses as prescribed by the new state law. Existing specialty licenses will continue to be honored in Monroe County for two years, at which time they will expire. 

Many of those same 400 tradesmen who have a specialty license with Monroe County also pay a licensing fee in Key West, Marathon and Islamorada to do work in those jurisdictions. Florida Rep. Jim Mooney said the bill’s aim was to correct just that — redundant fees. 

“It enhances a businessman’s ability to do his job without jumping through a thousand hoops. Why do I need a license to be a painter? I can’t think of a reason. It doesn’t do anything for my career,” Mooney said. “Put it this way, in Hillsborough County there are 28 licensed painters. I’m pretty sure there are more than 28 painters doing work. In Broward County, you need a special license to hang a cabinet. Why? Anybody can screw a cabinet to a wall with a level and a screw gun.”

Who can pull a permit?

What the new law doesn’t address, though, is permitting. And that is causing much angst and confusion. It’s common practice in the Keys for specialty licensed tradesmen to pull permits for local homeowners for things like stucco work, flooring, interior decorating or cabinetry. When the specialty license expires, who can pull the permit? 

Unless a local general contractor (remember, they are still licensed by the state of Florida) agrees to pull the below-their-pay-grade permit, it must be the homeowner who does so. When the homeowner pulls the permit they must sign an owner/builder affidavit. Among the promises they make is that they provide the labor and the materials, and that they will “not hire an unlicensed person to act as my contractor or to supervise the persons working on my building or residence.” 

The homeowner also must comply with laws requiring the withholding of federal income tax and social security contributions, and provide workers compensation for the employee; proof may be required.

So, as it currently stands in Monroe County: non-licensed tradesmen can’t pull permits. And, if homeowners pull the permits, they have to supervise, pay and insure the tradesmen. Monroe County Building Official Rick Griffin said he allows owners of vacation homes, or properties that are not homesteaded, to pull owner-builder permits in only very special circumstances, with heavy assurances that they will meet the criteria.  

“For the people who say, ‘Just get rid of that type of permit,’ well, it’s easier said than done,” said Monroe County Attorney Bob Shillinger. “Other parts of the state may scoff at us for requiring a permit to put up a fence. But in parts of the Keys where there are Key Deer, there’s a good justification for that permit because it is required to comply with the Federal Endangered Species Act. We’ve got higher law. If you issue permits that endanger these species … Monroe County could incur civil or criminal penalties from the federal government. We are caught between the medium-sized elephant (the state) and the giant-sized elephant (the federal government),” Shillinger said. 

The workaround

The only way to circumvent the snarl of Monroe County and state of Florida licensing requirements is to level up. In other words, a painter could sit for the state’s contractor exam and get a license. Then, as a state-licensed general contractor, he or she could pull a permit for house painting.

“Statewide, there are about 500,000 business people on a two-year clock to get their state-issued contractor’s license. The licensing system is hopelessly logjammed. You can’t even get a seat at the test table,” said John Coffin, of Coffin Marine Services in Key West. 

Armand Messina, of AM Electric in Marathon, also installs aluminum shutters under his specialty license. 

“That puts me out of that business, along with my employees,” Messina said. “That, or getting a state (contractors) license and that will take a year of my life. It’s six months of school, two thousand dollars in books and the test is an eight-hour exam. It’s a big deal. This is not a simple, little task.”

One contractor, speaking at a Monroe County Commission meeting said, “No painter is ever going to sit for their state general contractor license. It’s just not going to happen.”

Consumer protection

Monroe County government officials, local contractors and tradesmen agree on one thing: the homeowner needs protection. 

“I believe the governor thought he was doing something good, making it easier,” said Rudy Krause, who is a local general contractor. “But he didn’t hear the whole story. It could cost $30,000 to tile a house, or $20,000 to paint a house. But eight or nine months later, when the tiles pop up because the thin set wasn’t mixed correctly, or the paint starts peeling off the walls, there’s no recourse. The consumer needs to have protection too, because there are so many people out there who don’t know what they are doing.”

Businesses that perform specialty services are still required to have workman’s comp for their employees, in case they are hurt on the job, and some may even have liability insurance, whether they are licensed or unlicensed. Asking for proof of insurance is just common sense, said Rep. Mooney. 

“If you’re going to hire someone, you just have to ask if they have insurance,” said Mooney. “A homeowner wouldn’t hire someone without insurance.”

But Shillinger, the county attorney, said even something as simple as installing pavers requires experience. 

“If a person puts pavers down and it sheds water off the property onto a county road, and then it comes off the county road and onto a neighbor’s property, the neighbor can sue the county for a taking because we have flooded his property,” said Shillinger. “That’s why we have open space requirements, retention requirements, things like that.” 

What’s next?

“We are going to have to take a look at our permits and decide which ones have gone overboard,” said Shillinger. “That’s going to take a little time. In removing permit requirements we should take a studied approach.

“And we tie our planning permits to building permits. It’s just going to be a complicated mess,” Shillinger said. 

In addressing the elected county commissioners, Shillinger said he has been in contact with other counties to see how they are handling this preemption by the state and warned the commissioners if they sought to drastically circumvent the new state law, the consequences could be even harsher. Monroe County Commissioner Mike Forster agreed. 

“We can come up with ideas for moving forward, but then the state can just preempt us again. We will get better traction with a bigger consensus of Florida counties to make sure it sticks,” Forster said. “Otherwise it’s just an exercise in futility.”

Mooney said this is not a statewide concern. 

“Monroe County is the only county that has a problem with this bill. I’ve spoken to everyone — my friends in Jacksonville, my friends in Miami and my friends to the west in Fort Myers. No one else is having an issue with this bill,” Mooney said.  

Shillinger and Monroe County Mayor Michelle Coldiron said the specialty license holders and their colleagues, general contractors, could be their own best advocates in Tallahassee when the next legislative session begins. 

“I’m optimistic (we can change the law). If the local contractors band together and go back to Tallahassee, maybe the legislators will hear their voices more clearly. We need to make sure we protect our specialty tradesmen and our homeowners,” Coldiron said. 

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Sara Matthis thinks community journalism is important, but not serious; likes weird and wonderful children (she has two); and occasionally tortures herself with sprint-distance triathlons, but only if she has a good chance of beating her sister.