As Park County grows, lack of code could become a big problem

Posted 1/18/22

Here in Wyoming, we don’t take too kindly to government sticking its nose in our business. We value our independence and want to make our own choices. Government tends to do more harm than …

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As Park County grows, lack of code could become a big problem


Here in Wyoming, we don’t take too kindly to government sticking its nose in our business. We value our independence and want to make our own choices. Government tends to do more harm than good. Individual liberty and responsibility typically produce imperfect but superior results. 

There are areas, however, where most Wyominites agree the government has a legitimate role, such as the protection of property rights. 

Since August, the Powell Tribune has reported on people who say they hired contractors who did substandard work, didn’t do the work they were paid to do, or didn’t pay subcontractors — and didn’t offer any refunds. 

The sheriff considers these complaints to be civil matters, and months later, complaints to the Wyoming attorney general are still under investigation. For those who could afford to take the matter to court after losing huge sums of money, the suits netted just a fraction of what the plaintiffs allege they lost.

Park County requires contractors to get building permits, among other requirements. But it has no requirement to build to international codes, and contractors don’t need any kind of licenses. While most contractors are good people who do good work, bad ones can get away with a lot. 

Some argue that people should do their homework before hiring a contractor. There are a number of steps people should take, including checking references, getting signed contracts, looking up Better Business Bureau (BBB) standings, getting lien waivers, and setting up payment schedules.

These steps would have prevented the financial losses in most of the cases we covered, but not all. Mike Foster hired a local contractor that had previously done great work on a roof and was in good standing with the BBB to build a house. But the home never got built and Foster says he’s out tens of thousands of dollars. 

Dan and Jenny Catone hired a local contractor to build them a home, which an engineer concluded didn’t meet even the most basic requirements of the Universal Building Code (UBC). The house was in danger of collapsing, which could have seriously injured the Catones and their four children — or worse. They claim they’re out a half-million dollars. 

The Catones didn’t check references, granted the contractor free access to their loan, and never got a contract. Some comments on social media have suggested the couple was far too trusting, which makes them partly culpable for what happened to them. 

There are people around the Big Horn Basin who completely trust their neighbors, so they don’t bother locking their doors. If a burglar should exploit that trust to make off with valuables, no one would argue the victims deserved to get robbed. Likewise, the police would investigate and, if caught, the assailant would face justice. If there were no such protections, we’d have to trust our neighbors a whole lot less. 

Dan Catone concedes he and his wife extended too much trust, but he argues it’s hard to carry on relationships with people in the community without some degree of trust for your fellow man. The way the law is set up now, people need to treat all contractors as if they’re scammers out to take your money. Very few are like that, but should you trust the wrong contractor, you’ll have few options to recoup your losses. 

To be sure, asking the government to address this problem can invite further problems, as government solutions often come with unintended consequences. If the county were to implement code enforcement, the cost of housing construction in the county would become considerably slower and more expensive. 

Businesses have a hard time finding housing for their employees, and a slower permitting process would discourage some housing construction. 

Strict licensing requirements can create cartels. New contractors will have a tougher time entering the market, and established contractors can keep out competition. This leads to higher costs and limited choice for consumers. 

There is also the concern that once you open the door to government, its mission begins to creep. We’re a long way off from government requiring all new housing construction to have rooftop solar panels, but the kinds of regulatory burdens we see in places like California begin with this conversation right here. 

Finding the balance between individual liberty, personal responsibility and government protection is a conversation the county needs to have. People are getting hurt, and they have nowhere to turn. 

It’s not just about protecting people from crooks. The cases we’ve reported on are so egregious that the impacts were immediately noticeable. It’s possible other contractors are cutting corners that don’t meet UBC standards, but the problems that creates for homeowners won’t be seen for years. They might become unexpected headaches for the next home buyers. 

There’s a lot to consider. At the Park County Commission’s Jan. 11 meeting, Commissioner Lloyd Thiel discussed the option of having building permits that require contractors to build according to the UBC. The other commissioners questioned if the county can create a requirement it has no capacity to enforce, but agreed to explore possible solutions. 

With few protections in place and little recourse after the work is paid for, the county becomes a place where bad contractors can act with impunity. Perhaps Thiel’s proposal isn’t the best option, but the commission needs to have more conversations about this issue. As Park County grows, this problem isn’t going away.