For specialty contractors in Monroe County, time seems to still be running out.

That is, of course, unless city, county and state administrators and legislators find a way to combat House Bill 735, which preempts the requirement of local occupational licensing for contractors. The bill, which took effect in July of 2021, prevents local governments from issuing specialty licenses – think painters, pavers, landscapers and other similar work outside the scope of general contractors, plumbers, electricians and others whose work involves life safety implications.

For most municipalities in Florida with significantly looser permitting requirements, the bill makes sense – eliminate redundant fees and overlapping licenses as specialized contractors register in multiple municipalities, and just send significant licenses up to the state level.

But in Monroe County, where the designation as an Area of Critical State Concern requires permits for even simple tasks like laying down pavers or putting up a fence, the problem gets much more complicated. Specialty contractors can’t pull a permit to complete these tasks without a license. If homeowners try to pull owner-builder permits themselves, the application is heavily scrutinized, and the homeowners are responsible for insuring, paying and supervising those who actually do the work.

Proponents of the specialty licenses point to their ability to protect a homeowner against subpar work from inexperienced contractors, as well as giving these contractors a legal recourse should a client choose not to pay their invoices. With ongoing material shortages, some companies are flat-out unwilling to sell their products to contractors who can’t produce an official license.

In theory, a general contractor could pull the permit for a specialty worker to complete a job – but, understandably, they won’t do it for free, and it’s technically illegal. In any case, the resulting additional costs would be passed on to the customer, making homeownership in the Keys even more of a challenge.

“The customer shouldn’t have to pay that cost,” said Derrick Lazzara, president of the Florida Keys Contractors’ Association. “Everything’s already expensive enough down here. We can’t keep adding costs; we’re going to keep losing people.”

Monroe County stopped issuing new specialty licenses in July of last year. The existing specialty licenses will be honored by the county for two years, the maximum allowed by law, before they expire in 2023. As of now, many of the specialty licenses recognized in Monroe County do not exist at the state level, leaving these contractors out of business.

As it stands, the way for contractors to skirt the bill’s impacts would be to obtain a state contractor’s license. But this requires time, a significant financial commitment, and passing an eight-hour exam – if candidates can make it through a congested swarm of others seeking the same license. Obtaining the license, even if specialty contractors have no intention of performing work outside the scope of their pre-existing businesses, has major insurance implications as well, as the contractors would fork over larger premiums to be insured for more significant work with potential life safety implications.

At the July 20 meeting of the Monroe County Board of County Commissioners, county attorney Bob Shillinger sought the commissioners’ blessing to make a proposal to the Florida Association of Counties seeking the repeal of the bill, reflecting the wishes of the Monroe County Contractors’ Examining Board. 

Hoping to educate legislators with a stronger voice of multiple counties, Shillinger was hopeful the legislation could at least be modified to allow greater functionality in special areas like Monroe County. 

If repeal of the bill seems unlikely, the contractors’ board wishes to see language added to the state law that would give local specialty contractors credit for time already spent in their trades if these contractors choose to pursue a state license.

“We had one gentleman who had been working under a local contractor’s license for 40 years, and none of that time counted towards him sitting for a state license,” said Shillinger. “Obviously, he’s been doing something right for 40 years. … You would think that would demonstrate enough competence that would allow him to sit for a state license exam.”

“I think we’d all support that,” said Monroe County Mayor David Rice. “This is creating problems we don’t need.”

In Lazzara’s view, a change at the state level is unlikely, and help for specialty tradesmen must come, to the extent possible by law, from municipalities.

“The state isn’t going to budge on this. … I don’t see anybody getting that big of a headway on it yet,” he said. “We have to really figure out a way to let these (contractors) work on job sites without pulling all these little itty bitty permits for stuff.

“We have to figure out a way for building departments to figure out from the state what they’re allowed to actually do, and they have to find a way to do it, because we still are in an area of critical concern.”

“It’s opened up the doors to unlicensed contracting,” said Armand Messina, owner of Marathon-based AM Electric and custom hurricane shutter manufacturing company SunMasters. “I don’t think (Governor Ron DeSantis) realizes what he did. 

“I believe the only option that would satisfy everybody was if the state was to grandfather any existing licenses, give us state licenses, and then make those licenses non-transferable,” he continued. “If I was to sell the company or transfer it, hopefully by that time they’d have come up with some kind of a license for it (at the state level).”

Whatever the recourse, a ticking two-year clock is now down to one. With roughly 400 licensed specialty contractors in the county when House Bill 735 took effect, Keys residents could soon find themselves struggling to legally complete all but the most critical home projects within the next year.

“Hundreds of companies might be shut down, including their workers losing work,” said Lazzara. “I don’t think the Keys can survive that.”

Alex Rickert made the perfectly natural career progression from dolphin trainer to newspaper editor in 2021 after freelancing for Keys Weekly while working full time at Dolphin Research Center. A resident of Marathon since 2015, he fell in love with the Florida Keys community by helping multiple organizations and friends rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Irma. An avid runner, actor, and spearfisherman, he spends as much of his time outside of work on or under the sea having civil disagreements with sharks.