BROOKSVILLE - Mark Davis, owner of a local tree service, is so tired of all the unlicensed contractors in Hernando County that he has embarked on a one-man mission to alert the county code enforcement office to violators.
Davis said these criminals not only undercut him because they don't have the overhead of paying workers compensation and other fees but residents stand a good chance of receiving inferior work.
"Why isn't Hernando County cracking down on these unlicensed tree removal companies?" Davis asked.
Actually, the county is doing just that, said Chris Linsbeck, the county's zoning supervisor/administrative official.
Linsbeck calls Davis the county's "local vigilante" and said he's done a good job of canvassing the area and snagging these shady workers who remove trees without a proper license.
"He's been helping us get these unlicensed tree guys," Linsbeck said. "Most of our reports come from him. He turns them in and we send an officer out there and try to determine if it's a violation."
But Linsbeck said the problem goes beyond trees. Unlicensed contractors abound in Hernando County and many residents don't even know they are getting taken because the workers pass themselves off as bonafide workers.
"There are a lot of guys out there, in these economic times, who are overstepping their bounds," Linsbeck said. "It's basically a fight that we've been working on for years."
Unlicensed contracting is a felony in Florida.
From July 1, 2012 through July 31, 2013, code enforcement has handled 63 cases involving unlicensed contracting, 38 of which resulted in disciplinary action. The county collected $28,941 in citations and fines during that period.
There were also 69 reports of advertising without a license on Craigslist or elsewhere on the Internet.
Operations Manager Jody Singer said it's sometimes a challenge for code enforcement to find these illegal companies because their advertisements in the newspaper or on Craigslist don't include addresses and the information is purposefully vague.
"It's hard to track them down," Singer said.
Compounding the problem is a lack of code enforcement staffers to monitor the situation, Linsbeck said.
Linsbeck said tree services are allowed to trim trees and do certain other kinds of lawn work. But tree removal must be done by a licensed contractor, he said. The problem seems to escalate this time of year when the rains are making grass grow and more homeowners are demanding other lawn services.
Davis said residents must beware common tricks, such as a tree service showing up at the door on the weekend when county code enforcement office is closed. They also may present a license good for Pasco County but not Hernando, he said.
Linsbeck said even licensed and insured contactors could let their coverage lapse, so it is important residents call his office to verify the current status on the company's insurance, workers compensation and surety bond.
Also, Linsbeck said people should be wary of contractors asking them to apply for permits. That could be a "red flag" indicating the person is unlicensed or doesn't have the proper qualifications.
To find out if a contractor is licensed, call the county's development office at (352) 754-4050 and select the option for permitting and licensing.