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UTAH TO START TICKETING CONTRACTORS FOR VIOLATIONS OF LICENSING LAWS

In an effort to streamline investigations and bring cases to a quick conclusion, state regulators will start issuing citations against construction contractors violating licensing laws.

The citations are similar to a parking ticket, giving the accused the option of mailing in the scheduled fine or having a hearing. Regulators expect the new system, which exists in other Western states and will begin in Utah by the end of September, to reduce the amount of time investigators spend on contractor cases."We hope to be able to solve cases within 60 days," said Bill Essex Jr., investigation supervisor for the Division of Occupational and Professional Licensing. "Instead of waiting for a hearing they (the violators) can just send in a check."

Some contractors want to quickly resolve charges against them, he said, but under the current system the simplest, clear-cut cases can take months. Under regular procedure an investigator files a report with the attorney general, then waits for permission to issue a public petition against the accused. Then the accused can settle or await a hearing.

Essex said half of the division's investigative force is assigned to contractor complaints. In fiscal year 1991-92, contractor cases comprised 873 of the 1,900 total complaints fielded by the division, which regulates 47 professions.

This year will be no different. "We have buried the attorney general. We have about 80 (contractor) cases on wait," Essex said, noting the new procedure will allow the division to put more effort into more serious cases where money has been taken or the public has been harmed.

The citation will target three of the most common violations: operating without a license, a contractor licensed to do a specific trade but performing another, and general contractors hiring unlicensed subcontractors.

Fines range from $200-$600 for a first offense and $600-$1,200 for a second offense. Electricians and plumbers pay higher fines because of public health and safety issues involved in those trades, Essex said. And general contractors hiring unlicensed tradespeople pay the highest fines.

"If we could stop general contractors from hiring unlicensed subs it would dry up the market" of unlicensed workers, he said. "One general contractor is worth 10 individuals."

To entice guilty contractors to pay the fine, the division kept the citation penalties several hundred dollars lower than the legal maximum penalty and less than fines leveled against those who go to hearing.

The citation does allow, however, the accused to opt for a hearing. Hearings are held monthly before the state Contractors Licensing Board.

The Home Builders Association of Utah helped the division lobby this year's Legislature to pass legislation enabling the citation system.

"Since the (new) contractor laws went into effect in 1989 we have seen more contractors concerned about licensing, and we hope this will encourage the process a little more," association spokeswoman Margaret Crane said.