Jacksonville church out thousands of dollars
Spring Glen Methodist Church loses $6,000 to local contractor
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It's an I-TEAM investigation we've been working on since last year. A Jacksonville church cheated out of thousands of dollars on a remodeling project. To this date, the Spring Glen Methodist Church, located at the intersection of Beach and University Boulevards, hasn't recovered its money, the project still is not complete, and has learned the man they hired wasn't who he said he was.
Cindy Keane says the Spring Glen Methodist Church congregation has been a beacon of light to her community since the year 1902. But inside the sanctuary, the actual overhead lights have burned out over the years.
"We have a lot of older members that have a hard time seeing anyway, so the lighting is necessary," said Keane.
She says the church hired the company South Eastern Properties to replace their fluorescent bulbs with LED lighting. A job the contractor agreed to do for the church for more than $9,300, but required a $6,000 deposit.
"They [church members] feel victimized personally, as well as spiritually," Keane added.
The small congregation of 100 members came up with the $6,000 deposit in April of 2016. They paid it to a man named Kory Blue, who they say represented himself as the owner of South Eastern properties. The contract provided to the church reads, "Please allow 7-21 business days from time of deposit for completion."
Months passed without any work being completed, something that certainly raised their suspicions.
"It was touch and go, we haven't heard from him, lack of communication, wouldn't return phone calls, wouldn't return emails, wouldn't return text messages," Kean said.
Finally, in September of 2016, five months after the church handed over its money and signed the contract, Keane says they did reach Blue by phone. She says Blue told the church that the LED light bulbs were coming from China, but got held up in New York, and they would arrive later that month.
Church members made the decision to go to the business address listed on Blue's contract for a face-to-face, only to learn the worst
"It's a vacant lot, which really through us for a loop," said Keane.
Fearing church members would never get their money back, in December, Keane contacted the Jacksonville Sheriffs' Office. JSO called Blue, who again, promised police he was going to complete the job.
The I-TEAM confronted Blue about the deposit money and the lighting project at his work address -- the address he provided to police.
Tarik: "I'm Tarik Minor, I work with Channel 4 News. United Methodist Church..."
Blue: "Yes sir, I just spoke to them."
Tarik: "You owe them like $6,000."
Blue: "Well, I'm actually about to go finish the job."
Tarik: "Right, can you tell me what happened? What's the deal with this?"
Blue: "My partners, my partners bailed out at the last minute and moved to Tampa. So, we're going to do the job. I called them yesterday. They said they are going to organize the lift. As soon as the lift comes in, we're gonna go do the job. The materials are actually over here."
Blue admitted to the I-TEAM he doesn't have a Florida business license and he acknowledged to us that he falsified the business address on the contract. He did however, agree to show us the LED light bulbs he ordered for the church, blaming the delay in the installation on his business partners abruptly leaving town.
Blue asked us to leave and we did, but days later, members of the United Methodist Church returned to Blue's place of business to take possession of the light bulbs themselves.
Keane says Blue offered to install them, but without a business license and insurance, Tom Stephens, President of the Northeast Florida Better Business Bureau, warns that opens the door to liability.
"He does have the potential of hurting himself, or anybody that might help him could get hurt, and then there would be a liability to the church because he doesn't have workers comp," Stephens explained.
Stephens says the church made the right decision in retrieving the LED lights, and the church's final hope was to hire a licensed electrician to complete the installation, but there's another problem.
It turns out, the lights Blue gave them are the wrong bulbs, and the $6,000 deposit wasted. Church members learned the lights Blue got them are actually refrigeration lights -- typically used inside the coolers at Gas stations and grocery stores -- and are not overhead ceiling lights.
The I-TEAM called Blue for his response, and he told us he has no idea how he ordered the wrong lights. He admits that he "bit off more than he can chew" by accepting this job in the first place. He also says this has been a learning lesson for him, and as a result, the exposure is effecting his business, his customers and his credibility.
Stephens says the church might have a difficult time winning a criminal case against Blue because the BBB has no record of this kind of fraud with his business. He recommends any church, business or private person paying for a project to verify information before handing over any money.
"From the get go, ask for a certificate of insurance, for workers comp, and general liability. And, once you get that certificate, then contact the agent listed on there and make sure the policy's still current and actually enforced," Stephens said.
Meantime, church members say their only recourse now is to attempt to sell the lights Blue gave them, either online or to a local light bulb company, in an effort to recoup some of their money.
Steps to take when hiring a contractor
When hiring a contractor, the Better Business Bureau recommends you take several steps first.
Get multiple estimates: When hiring a contractor to do any type of work, get at least three estimates. Make sure the contractors have proof of their licenses and insurance. Ask if a permit is required for the project. Qualified contractors are able to acquire any permits before starting the job. Check out a contractor at bbb.org to see how long they have been in business, if they are accredited, and if there are any complaints against their business.
Check references: Look at more than what the contractor supplies. If possible, ask to visit previous jobs and interview the given references. Ask the previous customers if the job was completed to their specifications and if it was completed on schedule. Ask why they would recommend that particular contractor and if they would use their business again. It is also important to find out if the original estimate was close to what they paid or if the contractor charged unforeseen costs along the way.
Never pay upfront: Try to arrange a low down-payment and only pay the contractor according to how much work has been completed. Do not make the final payment until the job is completed and the final project meets your standards. Always pay with either a credit card or check, never cash.
Get everything in writing: Ask the contractor for a written agreement that clearly includes all of the project details. The contract should consist of: contact information, payment schedule, estimated completion date, materials being used and their cost, warranties, and any specific promises. Make sure to include that the contractor is accountable for cleaning-up the area after completion of the project. Never sign a blank contract or any contract without reading it thoroughly. Keep a copy of the contract after the job is completed in case there is an issue.
The BBB says you should avoid contractors who do the following:
- Sell door to door or have extra material from their last job
- Ask for payments in cash or want the full payment upfront
- Pressure homeowners to sign a contract
- Tell customers to borrow money from their lenders
- Ask customers to get the building permit
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