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Licenses for contractors?

Supervisors register dissent


MONTICELLO, NY — The conflict between whether it’s more important for governments to protect their citizens or more important to stay out of citizen’s affairs played out in a discussion at the government center on November 21.

The venue was the Council of Governments, which meets monthly to address problems that face town, village and county officials. The subject was whether or not to require the licensing of contractors, such as carpenters or other construction workers. The topic drew nearly 40 officials, a record number of attendees.

The issue of contractors who don’t fulfill their obligations has long been a problem in Sullivan County, and, according to county chairman Jonathon Rouis, 16 percent of all calls to the Consumer Education Department at the Cornell Cooperative Extension are related to contractor fraud.

District attorney Steve Lungen said his office gets weekly calls, especially during construction season, from homeowners who’ve lost tens of thousands of dollars to contractors, but often his office can take no action. He explained that if a homeowner gives a contractor $10,000, and the contractor buys $1,000 worth of materials and has them delivered to the job site, and then fails to do any more work, Lungen can’t prosecute the contractor. Under New York State law, the purchase of the material shows intent to do the work and the situation is not considered fraud.

Lungen, who said the most important function of government is to protect its citizens, endorsed the notion of licensing or registering contractors in the county. He said information about contractors could be posted on a website to be used as a “clearing house for residents to find out who is reputable and who is not,” and thereby prevent some of the abuses from occurring.

Lungen’s remarks were met with a chorus of resistance.

James Galligan, the supervisor of Forestburgh, said, “There’s not a lot of support for it.” He asked whether a lawn service worker would be considered a contractor and who would enforce any licensing requirement.

Greg Goldstein, supervisor of Neversink, said, “There’s not a lot of support in Neversink.” He said licensing contractors would simply add another layer of government and would not necessarily serve the intended purpose because “a license doesn’t make a person honest.”

Lungen countered that electricians in the county are licensed and his office never receives any complaints about them.

Several other town officials voiced opposition for various reasons, including that the cost would be a hardship for contractors and consumers need to be responsible for their own actions.

At one point, Lungen said, “Maybe I should tell everyone who calls me to call their town supervisors.”

In Lungen’s corner was Dean Tambori, who represents the Hudson Valley Building Trades Council and who is also a member of the Sullivan County subcommittee on labor. Tambori spoke in favor of licensing as a measure of consumer protection. Suggesting this was not an unreasonable measure, he said, “You need a license to cut somebody’s hair.”

County chairman Jonathon Rouis said the licensing requirement need not be strict. It could start as something as simple as a voluntary registration where contractors could register information about themselves and their qualifications. That turned the discussion toward more public education about the matter.

Legislator Kathy LaBuda, who is chair of the subcommittee on labor, said at meeting’s end that the county would not move forward without the support of the towns and the supervisors. The issue might be addressed again in February or March.

TRR photo by Fritz Mayer
District Attorney Steve Lungen explains the hardship vulnerable residents face when taken advantage of by unscrupulous contractors. (Click for larger version)