FOX 13 Investigates: County OK'd more permits for problem contractor

Tina Jensen reports

- Kathy Kalvelage and Mitch Alvins stood next to a pit in their Brooksville backyard. Inside the pit that is designated for a pool, rebar stuck out from the eroding walls.

Alvins recently added protective fencing around the plot of land, concerned that animals might stumble into the muddy mess.  “We have an HOA here, and we’re starting to hear questions,” he said. 

The couple signed a contract with Anchor Pools back in March. They made two payments in March and April totaling $13,000.

The pool was excavated in April – then, the work stopped.

"Very disappointing, to say the least," Kalvelage said. "I have a hole in my backyard and they've not come back to do any work on the pool."

They say they’ve received various reasons about why it hadn’t been worked on – weather being the most common excuse.

“We went along with that reasoning,” Alvins said, “that there’s not much they can do if it rains.”

The Brooksville couple says there was no completion date written in their contract, but they had hoped the pool would be done in time for their family reunion at the end of the summer.

"We may be going to the beach, but we're not swimming in our pool," continued Alvins.  

Hernando County resident Garry Ruphard similarly hoped to have his pool ready for his grandkids' visit for the July 4 weekend. It wasn't.  Ruphard instead played trucks with his grandkids in the pool’s concrete shell.  

"That's when I decided to fire Larry Varner,” he said.

Hernando County resident Christian Anderson has been waiting about a year for his pool. “Right now, this is all I got," he said, pointing to a pool shell full of algae.

These were among the Anchor Pools customers who told FOX 13 they were baffled after they brought their concerns about Varner to Hernando County, only to learn the building department would not stop issuing Varner additional pool permits.

Hernando County building official Jim Friedrichs said he and his department’s investigator opted to come up with a plan of action with Varner, rather than take disciplinary action on his certified license.

Friedrichs said Varner had 43 open pool permits at the beginning of 2015, when the building department started looking into complaints about his unfinished work.

"Generally speaking, yeah, it would be easy to say, 'Yes, let's just refuse to issue permits and make him complete all the work; he should have the money.’ They should be able to do that. But there are cases that they don't," Friedrichs said in an interview with FOX 13.

In an email to FOX 13, Hernando County building department investigator Vic Heisler said the county allowed Varner to continue to pulling permits because Varner reported numerous financial difficulties.  

"Had Hernando County revoked Anchor Pools' license when we originally identified problems, I believe we may have forced them into bankruptcy thereby resulting in significant financial harm to many, if not most, of those 43 homeowners," Heisler said.

He pointed to Varner’s 11 open permits at the end of August as evidence that Varner had completed "most of the pools that were problematic."

The plan of action was never put in writing. Heisler said the county “chose to monitor [Anchor Pools] work very closely” rather than create a written, stipulated agreement.

Varner declined an interview request, and no one answered the door at the business address for Anchor Pools.

"Everything is getting done. It's just taking longer than expected,” said a woman who answered the company’s phone. She did not want to provide her name. “There are no completion dates on the contracts,” she added.  

Ruphard said the county enabled Varner to cause harm to more residents. "Other people will sign up and they'll stand to lose money,” he said. “He'll have someone else to mess over."

"[Varner] shouldn't have needed to pull the permits in order to be able to finish the work," Friedrichs acknowledged. "Contractors are required to pull the money they receive on one job to that specific job."

If a Florida contractor does not do that, it's called misapplication of funds. It's illegal under state statute 713.345.

"I don't know if that was the particular case here; I don't know if they were robbing Peter to pay Paul -- using this person's money to finish this job," Friedrichs said. "We're not public accountants. We don't get into the books and look at that."

“I don't think we are complicit with his actions,” Friedrichs said, when asked whether the county would be complicit if there were reasonable cause to suspect misapplication of funds. “We have a responsibility to look at what's going on and bring charges. But it's not our decision; it goes before a board."

Hernando County code authorizes a construction board and a special master -- an attorney who oversees the hearing -- to restrict a contractor’s certified license or revoke it altogether. Action can be brought against a contractor for any number of issues, from failing to do work on a job site for 90 days, to causing financial problems for a homeowner. There are also provisions for broader issues such as negligence or incompetence in the practice of contracting.

Friedrichs and his investigator did not bring the issues with Varner before the county construction board.

"I don't think we made a determination to whether or not we did have a case, because we were working to solve all the open permits that he was working on," he said.

A lesson and a lien notice 

Hernando County did not revoke Varner's ability to pull more permits until the day before the interview with FOX 13.

Some would-be pool owners say it's an action that is too little, too late.

"The whole pool excitement is gone," Anderson said. "Am I going to be out money? Most likely. But I've got to get it done. I can't leave it like this."

Last month, Kalvelage and Alvins received a “Notice to Homeowner” from Varner’s subcontractor, the excavator who dug out their pool, who informed them that Varner did not pay them for their work.

"They sent us a letter stating we owe them $1,200, or they will be putting a lien on our property," Kalvelage said.

"We're mad at ourselves, as well. It's a tough learning situation here," Alvins said. The couple says they wish they had required Anchor Pools to include a written completion date in their contract.

The city of Brooksville, which issued the permit for the Kalvelages' pool, stopped issuing permits to Varner once Hernando County restricted his ability to pull more permits.

Ruphard hired new contractors to finish his pool. He estimates the decision cost him around $6,000 more than he would have paid under his agreement with Varner.

He says Hernando County still has a job to do.

"They should pull his license," he said.

That’s what the construction board did in neighboring Citrus County. 

Citrus County Construction Board

In a small multi-purpose room in a Citrus County government building one August afternoon, the construction board hearing came to order. 

The county’s license compliance officer, Robin Kenning, was sworn in before she began testifying about her investigation into Varner.

Kenning had compiled a case file for one family’s property, filled with exhibits and evidence. 

“At $32,200, they've had to pay approximately $4,000 more than the originally contract price to complete their pool,” she said, adding the pool was still waiting for final inspection.

Attorney Heather Smith, who works as the special master for Citrus County licensing hearings, turned to the pool contractor. "Mr. Varner, did you want to come up and say anything?"

"Yeah, it would have been a little sooner, but there was a little bit of weather, stuff like that, rain,” he said.

The pool was one of two open permits Varner had in Citrus County. Kenning updated the board about the other pool permit, which was a case the board had heard about in prior meetings. “Mr. Varner has again promised to appear” at the home “several times, and has not shown up,” she said. 

Smith then made a ruling: Varner would not be pulling any more pool permits in Citrus County.

"The reason that I'm doing this is that we had to sit on Mr. Varner in order to get this done, and that is really unfortunate,” Smith said. “I find this egregious enough.” 

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The Florida Department of Business and Regulation has information about the threat of a lien if a contractor fails to pay a subcontractor.  Report concerns about contractors to your local licensing office as well as the DBPR.

Have a tip? FOX 13 Investigates wants to hear from you. Email us at investigates@wtvt.com. Contact the reporter directly at (813) 870-9758 or email tina.jensen@foxtv.com.

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