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September 17, 2019Cart

Business

by Westchester County Business Journal
by WCBJ

Outside plumbers challenge Westchester fines

Two plumbing companies based outside of Westchester County do not dispute that they worked on a job in Greenburgh without a proper license, but they contend that $25,000 in county fines were excessive.

Demonte Plumbing in Commack, Suffolk County, and PSI Plumbing in the Bronx sued Westchester County, the Department of Consumer Protection and the Plumbing Licensing Board to annul the penalty.

Businesses based outside of Westchester, the plumbers claim in a complaint filed in Westchester Supreme Court, tend to get higher fines than Westchester businesses that commit similar violations.

Catherine Cioffi, the county communications director, declined to comment on pending litigation.

Bob Demonte of Demonte Plumbing and Thomas Ward of PSI have known one another and worked together for more than 35 years, according to their lawsuit, and when they formed a joint partnership to bid on a job in Greenburgh, they believed only one of them needed to be licensed in Westchester.

Last summer they began installing bathrooms and showers in a 24 Hour Fitness gym at 668 Central Park Ave. PSI got the plumbing permit for work estimated at $365,000.

County consumer protection inspector Tony Prusak arrived at the job site on Aug. 8 and determined that Demonte, not PSI, was paying the plumbers. He cited the companies, and Greenburgh issued a stop-work order.

Demonte and Ward testified at a November plumbing board hearing that they believed they had acted properly but admitted that they did not know how to properly undertake a joint venture.

The board ruled that the businesses had violated the plumbing code for five days and fined the companies $2,500 each per day, for a total of $25,000.

A second hearing, requested by the plumbers to reconsider the penalty, was held in January.

Their attorney, Robert C. Hilpert, produced an official schedule of fines that authorizes a fine of $500 to $5,000 per day for operating without a license but recommends $1,000 per day for a first offense.

He presented an analysis of two years of fines for similar violations. The average, he claims, was about $500 per day, and Westchester companies got smaller fines than outside companies.

John Royce, the board chairman, said a $2,500-per-day fine was justified because the work was commercial. Hilpert responded that the schedule of fines makes no distinction between commercial, residential or any type of work.

Royce then produced a “fine sheet” that does distinguish between residential and commercial work. That sheet, Hilpert claims, was never officially approved by the board or filed with the county clerk.

The board declined to act on the plumbers’ request for reconsideration.

Hilpert also alleges that he was not allowed to cross-examine witnesses at the first hearing; that the board issued no findings of fact or conclusions of law as required by state law; that hearings were not recorded and minutes were filed late; and that the board met illegally in a secret “executive session” at the January meeting to reconsider the fines.

The plumbers argue that the board abused its discretion, acted arbitrarily and ruled contrary to substantial evidence. They want the court to set aside the fines or reduce them to the amount recommended in the official schedule.