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‘Why the fines?’ Contractors leery of push to give City of Casper inspectors new powers to punish

Casper City Council member Bruce Knell. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)

CASPER, Wyo. — Casper City Council member Bruce Knell often declares himself as a strong proponent of small and limited government. However, Knell is leading a push on the city council to expand the power of city inspectors to issue fines to contractors.

“Do I think we need more government oversight?” Knell said during the Tuesday, January 11 council work session. “You know I am an anti-government guy. But we are in a situation now where people are circumventing the rules. They are doing whatever they want. And this happens often where they go do the work [and] half the time they don’t even call for an inspection.”

The city council held a discussion surrounding contractor licensing and permitting during the January 11 work session at Knell’s request. He became the council’s liaison to the Casper Contractors’ Licensing and Appeals Board after former Vice Mayor Khrystyn Lutz, who previously served as the council’s liaison to the board, resigned in August 2021 because her family was moving to Lander.

Some members of the Contractors’ Licensing and Appeals Board are questioning the motive behind the push to give city inspectors the power to issue fines.

“Ask the question of: why the fines?” Contractors’ Licensing and Appeals Board member Adam Hall, who started in the HVAC industry in high school and has been involved in contracting work for over 20 years, said on Friday. “Why shake it up and why the fines? Where is that trying to get to?…I’m just a skeptic on this but I wonder, is it a way to generate more income for the city?”

Fellow board member Andrew Elston, a mechanical engineer who also has over 20 years of experience in contracting-related work, agreed that the push to give inspectors the power to issue fines may be about generating revenue for the city: “That’s what I think. Follow the money.”

Casper Chief Building Official Dan Elston (no relation to Andrew Elston) told the city council during the January 11 work session that as far as he can recall, the Contractors’ Licensing and Appeals Board has not been used in its appellate function since 1983.

Hall and Andrew Elston said that they think the existing structure of the board and oversight of contractors in Casper is working fairly well as-is.

“The process has worked for 40 years and you know, is it an A++?” Hall said. “No, but it definitely is an ‘A’.”

Andrew Elston questioned whether council members who want to shake up the oversight structure have a good understanding of the system as it exists now.

“I guess I feel a lot of the city council members don’t know what we’re talking about, yet they’re weighing in on possibly making changes,” he said. “I feel they should know more information before making these changes.”

Andrew Elston said that when Lutz was the council’s liaison to the Contractors’ Licensing and Appeals Board, she didn’t express any issues with the existing structure but that Knell is calling for change after only recently stepping into the liaison position.

“He hasn’t even been through a whole year,” Andrew Elston said. “He doesn’t even know the process, yet he thinks he does and he’s throwing his weight around.”

Knell called for conversation about giving city inspectors power to issue fines after a citizen complained about work that a contractor had done in their home. Knell said during the January 11 work session that the citizen had hired the contractor to do some work and was subsequently “very unhappy with the work that got done.”

Knell said that the contractor had not taken the step of getting the work inspected after completion and that once complaints were raised, concrete had already been poured and the work couldn’t be inspected. Knell said that giving more authority to inspectors to issue sanctions against contractors in such instances would help get contractors “back in line.”

“Give inspectors themselves the power to levy fines,” Knell said. “I think our inspectors should have the power to do that.”

Knell and Andrew Elston question whether one complaint from a homeowner should be the basis for shaking up the structure of how oversight of contracting work is overseen in Casper. They also said that it is important to understand the following point — city inspections check whether contracting work is up to code but are silent in regard to quality of the craftsmanship.

“Quality is nothing that we are talking about,” Andrew Elston said. “We’re talking about meeting the International Building Code which was adopted by the City of Casper. A lot of those complaints brought forth by that homeowner were craftsmanship-related, which we do not get involved in.”

Hall added: “The city can’t inspect, nor can they fine, for craftsmanship.”

Questions about the quality of contracting work are between the contractor and the homeowner, according to Hall and Andrew Elston. They said that if there are disputes about the quality of work that was done, that would be a matter for the courts rather than for the city to handle.

“That’s a civil issue,” Hall said. “Period. You don’t like the work that was done at your house, that’s for you to not pay that contractor, but then he’s going to sue …There have been many lawsuits for all the trades.”

Giving city inspectors the ability to issue fines to contractors could spoil what is already a healthy working relationship between city building department staff and contractors, Hall and Andrew Elston said.

They said that in the existing system, contractors can feel comfortable asking city inspectors to check whether some aspect of their work is up to code or what they can do to make sure it meets code.

If inspectors were able to issue fines, not only would contractors be less likely to ask for inspectors’ input but they might choose not to participate in the licensing and permitting process at all.

“If you keep increasing the cost of permits or you start creating fines, then what you’ll see is a pushback from the contractors,” Hall said.

He said that fines and increased costs might push contractors and/or homeowners toward not pulling permits.

Casper City Manager Carter Napier said during the January 11 work session that if the city council wants to think about creating new sanctions for contractors, it should first take the step of restructuring the Contractors’ Licensing and Appeals Board.

The board currently is involved in reviewing people’s experience when they apply for contractor licenses and recommending whether the person has the necessary experience to be tested in order to receive a license. Their other role is in handling appeals cases involving contractor licensing.

Napier described making a clear and clean appeals process as an important step if the council wants to create new sanctions relating to contracting work in Casper. That might involve putting questions about licensing solely in the hands of the building department and the city building official and tasking the board with only handling appeals of licensing, permitting and fine decisions issued by building department staff.

As of 1 p.m. Wednesday, Council member Lisa Engebretsen is the only person who has responded to a Friday email from Oil City News sent to all members of council along with city staff with questions regarding the issue of restructuring oversight of contractors in Casper.

Engebretsen said that she is in favor of possibly giving city inspectors the authority to issue fines to contractors in Casper.

“This needs to happen in effort to keep accountability for our contractors,” Engebretsen wrote. “Although they are licensed and insured, we have some bad apples out there and they have no problem charging full price and cut corners at every turn.”

Engebetsen, who works in real estate, said she has had mixed results working with contractors in Casper.

“Currently have a lawsuit against one who took $38,000 and ran,” she wrote. “He took all the materials that was purchased for the job, down payment, removed copper from the home and skipped town. He was licensed and insured with reputable references.”

Engebretsen said that she does not see problems with the existing structure of the Contractors’ Licensing and Appeals Board and the process for issuing licenses and permits in Casper. She said that the purpose of licensing and permitting is to demonstrate that contractors have expertise.

“It shows the public that they are serious about their profession,” she said. “It is critical to be able to look to see who is licensed so you know who you can trust. Typically I have had great experiences by making sure my contractors are licensed.”

She said that from her perspective, efforts to restructure the existing process would be to help streamline the process.

“I know it is burdensome when contractors have to wait over a month to receive their licenses,” Engebretsen wrote.

Hall and Andrew Elston acknowledge that there are cases in which contracting work is done without people having the proper licenses or permits. However, they said that they think giving city inspectors the authority to issue fines would not have the effect of encouraging contractors to follow the licensing and permitting process but would instead make it more likely for unlicensed and/or unpermitted work to occur.

If the goal is to ensure safety, Hall and Andrew Elston said that the city should try providing more education to contractors and homeowners instead of jumping immediately to adding new fines.

“I bet if you really got down to the bottom of this and found out why do people not follow
the rules is ignorance more than anything,” Hall said. “And there’s no education.”

Andrew Elston added: “The most effective thing they could do is start having more code classes to help the contractors and open the doors up and teach code better. Because the only recurring education in all of the trades is for electricians currently. That’s from the state level so it’s not even a local thing.”

Education and facilitating cooperative relationships between contractors and city inspectors is more likely to lead to contractors choosing to participate in the city’s licensing and permitting process than creating new punishments, according to Andrew Elston.

He summarized his perspective with a well-known proverb: “You catch more bees with honey than you do vinegar, right?”