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Hit with a board 

The second Friday of every month, John McNeill gets in his truck and makes the drive from Hot Springs to Little Rock for the Arkansas State Contractors Licensing Board meeting. Most weeks, he's the only one there other than the board members, their counsel and investigators, and the contractors who are summoned before them.

In October 2007, McNeill — a licensed electrician — was cited by a contractors board investigator for working a commercial job without a commercial contractor's license. Most contractors caught in a similar situation enter into a settlement with the board and pay several hundred dollars and agree to get their license. McNeill, however, insists he was in the right, and has taken a stand — an ongoing fight that he says has cost him upwards of $10,000. Officials at the contractors board say they're an impartial body, one whose main goal is to look out for the public. McNeill, however, calls the board a racket.

At the time he was cited, McNeill was contracted to wire 13 duplexes in the Shadow Peaks subdivision in Hot Springs, a project that he believed his licensure allowed him to do. McNeill has completed the rigorous, multi-year process of obtaining his residential electrician's license, which allows him to wire single and two-family residences, and the state of Arkansas allows a licensed electrician to wire any project not amounting to more than $20,000 without a contractor's license. McNeill said the general contractor had presented the Shadow Peaks job to him as if each duplex was its own individual residence. Each was on a separate lot, with a separate deed and address. The structures in the development would be sold individually instead of as a package, and none of the duplexes would cost more than $20,000 to wire. According to the Arkansas State Licensing Law for Commercial Contractors, a “single family residence” is defined as “any project consisting of one but not more than four units constructed for single family residency.” Given that, McNeill thought he was in the clear, free to complete the job without a commercial contractor's license. He had roughed in four duplexes and was starting a fifth when an investigator for the contractors board showed up.

“They made the excuse that it's a commercial project because it's all on the same plat and it's financed by the same loan,” McNeill said. “Neither one of those words ever occur in the rules and regulations. Each one of those buildings was separately permitted and considered by the municipality to be a separate project.”

Despite his objections, McNeill was cited for working on a commercial project without a commercial contractor's license. Though he was allowed to complete the work he'd already started, he was barred from moving ahead with other duplexes in the development. Though he stood to make around $45,000 from the Shadow Peaks job — and still might have had he settled quickly with the board — McNeill refused to settle.  Eventually the general contractor was forced to drop him in favor of another electrician in order to get things moving again. It is, McNeill said, the unwritten caveat of refusing to “play ball” with the board: knuckle under and pay or fight and be out of work. It's pressure that tends to spread upwards to the general contractor if the subcontractor resists.

“[The general contractor] has got all kinds of money — most of it borrowed — out,” McNeill said. “If this project stagnates, the point of sale and lease of the buildings is pushed further into the future and he's looking at racking up substantial costs. They've basically got your nuts in a vice. They don't have to prove anything to destroy you financially … . It's flat-out extortion ”

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