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Out Of Service

By Tina Traster

August 2, 2007 -- After a four-month renovation - which included reconfiguring walls; installing windows, doors, fixtures and floors; and replacing every bit of wiring and plumbing - my 1850s farmhouse was practically brand-new.

When I moved in, the contractor assured me that the plumber, his subcontractor, would return in the spring to jump-start the air-conditioning unit with refrigerant. Six months later, the plumber refused to return.

“The contractor told me not to do any work for you,” he said. “He said you’re still having a dispute.”

That was entirely true (we have unfinished business with the contractor), but we insisted he had a contractual obligation to finish the job he started. He ignored us. It was nearing June, and temps were rising. Feeling defeated, we hired another plumber. He poured the refrigerant, flipped the “on” switch and nothing.

“Sorry to tell you this, ma’am, but you’ve got holes in the lines,” he said. “It probably happened when the siding guys nailed the boards back on. Looks like the Freon leaked out.” He handed me a bill for $347.

Steaming, I filed a complaint with the plumbing board, a division of Rockland County Consumer Protection. I asked the board to suspend our original plumber’s license unless he fixed the AC lines, reimbursed us the $347 we had paid to the second plumber and honored the one-year warranty on his work. I knew the board had no authority to demand monetary restitution, but I figured that if they turned up the heat, the plumber would come to his senses and do the right thing.

The plumbing board is a motley crew of silver-haired, tough-talking guys. They held two hearings over a couple of months and agreed that the plumber was misbehaving. At this point, they weren’t ready to take any decisive action, but a plumbing official told me they leaned on him and suggested “he make a good business decision concerning the Trasters.”

Weeks passed. No check. No communication from the plumber. But the plumbing board told us there would be a third hearing so that he could defend himself. They told me attendance was unnecessary.

Days later, a letter from the plumbing board arrived. “The case is closed.” The plumber hid behind the contractor, and the board let him off the hook. In a follow-up call, they told me I should take the plumber to small-claims court.

Instead, I filed an appeal against them to the Rockland County Legislature. I alleged that the plumbing board failed to protect us from a plumber who’d abandoned a job, and that this plumber, a subcontractor, was hiding behind the contractor.

In the months leading to the hearing before the Legislature, we had yet another round with the plumber.

In the dead of winter, water was dripping through my daughter’s bedroom ceiling from condensation off the lines that are housed in an overhead crawl space. To our surprise, the plumber did come back to fix the problem, and then, also to my surprise, he sent me a bill for $350, even though this work should have been covered under warranty. When I refused to pay, he threatened to sue.

The hearing before the Legislature was a more formal affair than the sessions before the plumbing cabal. Three councilpersons sat in a row at a table, flanked by their attorney and a stenographer. The plumbing board and its legal team were on one side, my husband and I on the other.

“We’ve never had a county resident ask for a hearing about a division of Consumer Protection,” observed a councilman.

The plumbing board’s attorney began with an argument that the case should be dropped, and that we should seek redress with the contractor. He also argued that consumers did not have the right to have complaints heard by the Legislature, that only contractors had the right to a hearing.

But my husband, a former attorney, cited local laws that stated that a subcontractor does not have the legal right to abandon a job. He also argued that the plumbing board acted in bad faith since it had agreed with us originally and then reversed itself in a meeting in which we were not present.

Eureka! The Legislature told the plumbing board that it should bring the plumber back for another hearing, and that if he doesn’t reimburse us and honor the one-year warranty, it must suspend his license.

A month later, the plumbing board held its next hearing. By now, we’d racked up nearly $150 in baby-sitting fees to attend these night meetings, but this was no longer about $347. In an age when so many institutions are corrupt, one clings to the possibility of reining in a rogue craftsman.

And that’s exactly what happened. The plumber failed to show up at the hearing, and the plumbing board suspended his license and fined him $1,000.

Days later the phone rang. “Tom has agreed to pay you,” said Terry Grosselfinger, the county’s public advocate. “He will issue you a one-year warranty, void the latest bill he sent you and return the $347. If these terms are agreeable to you, and he honors them, we will reinstate his license.”

Ahhh . . . justice is cooler than an air-conditioned room on an August day.

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