Teachers and property owners might have survived the 86th Legislative Session that ended Memorial Day, but the plumbers didn’t.
“Everybody in the industry is pretty shook up, not knowing what the future holds,” third generation Longview plumber Michael Goettle said Friday at the end of a work week that began with news the state board that certifies — and polices — plumbers will stop issuing licenses Sept. 1.
The Texas Board of Plumbing Examiners was under Sunset Act review during the legislative session. Last-minute legislative haggling prevented its survival of the periodic life-or-death review every state agency in Texas undergoes.
At the crux of the holdup was Senate Bill 621, which was carried in the House by Rep. Chris Paddie, R-Marshall, as a member of the Committee on Licensing and Administrative Procedures. Instead of shepherding the plumbers board into another 10- or 12-year lifespan, SB 621 merged the agency into the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, which regulates other construction trades including electricians and air conditioning technicians.
Paddie said the proposed merger was the committee’s response to years of complaints about the plumbing examiners board — lengthy delays in the licensing process, phones rarely being answered. The Licensing and Regulation agency, by contrast, typically issues licenses to applicants in the trades it oversees within weeks, he said.
“The biggest thing was the time it took to get a license, and general customer service — a typical lack of efficiency,” Paddie said, adding that the situation couldn’t come at a worse time with Hurricane Harvey repairs ongoing amid a shortage of plumbers in the Lone Star State. “One of the major things we had were reports and testimony that it takes some people eight months to get licenses. ... When we had Harvey ... other agencies did some things to expedite licenses. Frankly, it’s just an inefficient, poorly run agency.”
Paddie said residents testified of bureaucratic “additional barriers” thrown up by the agency.
“It makes it very difficult for people to get in the profession at a time when we have a shortage of plumbers in this state,” he said.
Paddie said the average age of plumbers in Texas is about 60.
“We have a real shortage, and here we have all these barriers and unnecessary hoops to fill the need,” he said.
Paddie, a former Marshall mayor, said most cities already require plumbers to satisfy requirements of the International Plumbing Code, the Uniform Plumbing Code, or both. They just don’t issue plumbing licenses.
Maybe now they will.
“Many municipalities go ahead and adopt it by local code and don’t rely on the state,” said Michael Shirley, Longview’s director of development services. “We will no longer just register people who are already certified through the state. We’ll have to certify them. But if a journeyman or mid-level (plumber) wants to be a master, now we’re going to have to create a mechanism for us to make sure they know what they’re doing.”
Shirley emphasized that everything is kind of up in the air in the days since the legislative session ended. And the plumbing examiners board will not start its one-year wind-down until Sept. 1 when it stops issuing licenses.
“We will, in the time between now and then, figure out what makes sense for us,” he said. “Everybody’s kind of scrambling.”
He said Longview officials will visit other cities in an attempt to coordinate whatever solutions arise.
“We don’t want to be so drastically different (from each other),” he said. “That is the good thing about it being centralized.”
“The State Board of Plumbing Examiners, as of Sept. 1, is no longer accepting any applications or reviewing applications for a license,” said Craig Berendzen, manager of the Local 100 of the United Association, a plumbers and pipefitters union. The Dallas-based Local 100 includes all counties in Northeast Texas, though Goettle, the Longview plumber, said no local plumbers are union members. (Berendzen gave the name of a Tyler plumbing outfit when asked for a local member).
Berendzen offered one tip for residents considering a plumber for a job.
“The consumer needs to say, ‘Can you produce a license?’ “ he said, listing a plumber’s apprentice card or a tradesman’s, journeyman’s, master’s or drain-cleaners license as proof of state certification. “If they can’t produce one of those documents, I would not let them in my house. ... I would also check their ID, because it’s got to match the license (which has no photo).”
Ronnie Rice, with National Wholesale Supply and a member of the East Texas Builders Association, said the loss of the board leaves people with nowhere to take complaints for shoddy work. And shoddy work, particularly in natural gas line work that plumbers are asked to perform, can prove deadly.
“This isn’t about just plumbers,” he said. “It’s about the safety of our nation.”
Texas joins Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, New York and Pennsylvania as states that do not have a regulatory agency setting and policing plumber standards.
The spokesman for the city of O’Fallon, Missouri, which has a population similar to Longview’s at 85,200, said neither the city nor the county of Saint Charles certifies plumbers. He said residents rely on the reputation of people they hire for plumbing work.
He added he’s not heard of a problem with plumbers in the 45 years he’s lived there.
“I’ve never heard this before,” he said. “Obviously, there are some things that the state (of Missouri) certified. But obviously, with the people you bring into your home, you’re going a lot on reputation.”
Goettle said state Rep. Jay Dean, R-Longview, has arranged a fish fry this month at the East Texas Builders Association headquarters on Alpine Road for plumbers and building contractors to talk about what comes next.