By Bill McCabe – As published in The Hudson Valley News

As a licensed real estate broker, I know that the real estate market is beginning to improve and that buyers want homes that are well built, safe, and a good risk for their families and their life savings. I value my clients, their children, their pets, and all their mementos that come from building a life. I want them to be protected from electrical fires. In my six years serving in the Dutchess County Legislature I fought to protect them by working to pass the Master Electricians’ Licensing law that went into effect in March of 2009. Now different interests are apparently at work. In a disturbing, partisan, retrogressive vote on Thursday 2/11 the Dutchess County Legislature voted 17 to 7 to repeal the licensing law without any attempt on the part of the critics to revise or amend it.

Three fourths of all States require state-wide licenses for electricians, including nearby Massachusetts and Connecticut. In New York, it is left to counties to decide on licensing electricians; our neighbors in Orange, Greene, Rockland, Westchester, and Putnam all require electricians to be licensed. This licensing procedure would not cost the taxpayers any money. In fact, when cities are included, the licensing makes money for the counties.

At the Legislature’s Government Services Committee meeting on 2/4/10, Legislator Incoronato, the main sponsor of the motion to rescind the licensing law, stated that he knew of no problems with electrical fires in Dutchess County. If he had spoken with any number of firemen around Dutchess County or consulted State and national statistics, he would know that nearly 11% of all fires are due to electrical problems, that nationwide (according to FEMA) 47% of residential electrical fires are caused by defects in the internal electrical wiring, and that electrical fires are substantially more destructive to life and property. Licensing would have ensured accountability and proper insurance for electricians who work in our homes. Fire officials in my town report that in 2007 four fires totally destroyed homes due to electrical wiring faults. Established electricians testify that much of their work involves undoing and repairing faulty, unsafe work done by inexperienced or insufficiently trained installers of electrical wiring. Electricity has an inherent potential danger and should not be handled by inexperienced or untrained persons.

All cities in New York, large and small (including Poughkeepsie and Beacon), already require licensing. The other municipalities of Dutchess deserve similar protection for their citizens. Last week’s vote by legislators is not good for consumers, for public safety, or for electricians themselves — the majority of whom work in small businesses and fully support licensing.

It is difficult to believe that when so many professions require licenses (teachers, real estate salespeople, barbers, home inspectors, etc.), installers of electric panels and wiring could be exempt. Without licensing requirements, any one of us could “legally” advertise and be hired to do the work of electricians. That is why when I was elected to the Legislature in 2003, I signed on to work with a bi-partisan group of legislators to bring a Master Electricians’ Licensing Law to Dutchess County. Although the law specifically allowed non-licensed homeowners to work on their own homes, such owners’ work had to meet all codes and inspection regulations.

The bumpy road towards passing a Licensing Law began in the 1990’s and always had bi-partisan support. By 2006 a firm majority of legislators (Democrats, Republicans, and a Conservative) passed a law that was vetoed by the County Executive, but there were not enough votes (17 out of 25 are needed) to over-ride the veto. Finally, in 2008 the licensing of Master Electricians became law in Dutchess with 18 legislators from three parties voting to over-ride the Executive’s veto.

Licensing electricians does not cost the taxpayers a penny. All costs would have been covered by the licensing fees, less costly for electricians than the combined fees of Poughkeepsie and Beacon. In fact, in other counties licensing fees provide a positive cash flow. In the Dutchess County law, any income produced beyond costs would have gone to consumer information and apprentice training programs. The law would have required licensed electricians to be properly insured, provided consumers with a process to file complaints, and established a compensation fund to settle consumer disputes.
The Dutchess County licensing law was based on the wording and standards of laws in nearby counties, consistent with national, State, and local codes, and it was modified to meet the needs of our residents after numerous public hearings held around the county. Reasonable criteria were established for grand-fathering established electricians and those already licensed in Poughkeepsie and Beacon. Consistent with the County Charter, the law provided for a Licensing Board appointed by the County Executive to implement the law, grant licenses, and handle complaints. Mr. Steinhaus’s hand-picked Board has been meeting monthly since May of 2009 but has been very slow to implement the law, spending much of its time reading the 14-page law line-by-line, and was not prepared to accept responsibility for the January renewal of licenses in Poughkeepsie and Beacon. If the Board had been operational by January 1, no monies would have come from the county and the income flow from the two cities would have covered all the seed money the Board required to administer county-wide licensing.

Now that the licensing law has been rescinded, it will be difficult to revive it in the near future. Without it, consumers in Dutchess County outside the two cities are now more vulnerable to the possibility of shoddy electrical work. You can change this. Call your County Legislator to bring back the licensing law.