Whistleblower: Son says dad didn't need services

  • Article by: Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 25, 2012 - 7:00 PM

A senior was charged thousands for electrical upgrades that his son said were not necessary. The contentions were disputed.

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An electrical contractor charged 82-year-old Robert Paul of Brooklyn Center almost $4,000 to do work that Paul’s son claims didn’t need to be done.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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A Brooklyn Center man hired a plumber in January to remove a garbage disposal from his 1950s-era house.

Final cost: $4,515.75.

While Robert Paul, 82, was charged just $372 for the plumbing work, the plumber summoned an electrician to disable an outlet associated with the disposal. The electrician showed up in minutes.

Paul paid $200 for that, but the electrician also recommended further electrical work. He wrote up three bids ranging from $5,325 to $3,303.

Neither tradesman disclosed then that their business franchises, Benjamin Franklin Plumbing and Mister Sparky, share offices in Minneapolis and share a parent company, Clockwork Home Services, based in Florida, Paul said.

What he was told, he said, was, "I would have to do this upgrading and everything ... I would have to have all this stuff done before I could put the house up for sale."

The president of the Mister Sparky franchise, Mark Cemensky, denied his employee said that and suggested Paul misunderstood. On Friday, Paul again said he was told that, but he acknowledged he can't remember who said it.

While some cities require a house to be up to code before it may be sold, Brooklyn Center does not. Paul said he's not planning to sell and didn't tell the electrician he was.

'Already had 100-amp service'

Paul didn't give the electrician the go-ahead that day but called Mister Sparky later that month because a circuit in his kitchen was acting up, according to Cemensky.

A different employee showed up and revised the earlier three-option bid to reflect a price range of $4,087 to $800.

"He [like the earlier electrician] noticed the same thing with the panel, that there was corrosion on it, and he offered him the option to do it if he wanted to," Cemensky said.

This time Paul agreed to pay the company $3,944 to "install new 100-amp 30-space panel, install new 100-amp service, upgrade grounding [and] replace six ungrounded outlets," according to the bid.

Paul's son Mark Paul, of Marine on St. Croix, was skeptical when he heard what his dad paid.

"He already had 100-amp service," Mark Paul said. "They charged him to update to 100-amp service. He had a couple breakers and some fuses. All were working fine. The only thing they should have done with this house was add an extra outlet."

"We never told him he didn't have 100-amp service," Cemensky said. "When we upgrade something, that doesn't [necessarily] mean it's going from 100 to 150 or 150 to 200. It's improving what's already there. The reason why we changed out the panel was the bus was corroded on the panel. If it's corroded, it will start to heat up."

Earlier this month, Cemensky met with father and son to discuss the job and negotiate a partial refund.

"They offered him 10 percent of his money back," Mark Paul said, or "20 percent off future work. Dad was ready to take this."

Mark Paul said he started by asking for $3,000 back but they eventually settled for $1,000 back.

Robert Paul then signed a form produced by Cemensky that said Paul was "100% satisfied with the service ... and will hold no grievances."

Robert Paul acknowledged he was relieved at that point: "[I] felt a little happy that this thing maybe was going to be all settled. Get them out of the house."

On Friday, a day after Whistleblower contacted Cemensky, he arrived unannounced at Paul's house, and, according to Paul, told him that the company could sue him over the article's impact and said "we may have to call our legal department."

Cemensky denied that. He said he visited Paul to ask him why he hadn't called Mister Sparky about his dissatisfaction.

Multiple bids recommended

State agencies and consumer groups urge customers to get multiple bids, something Paul admits he didn't do.

"There are no guidelines in state statutes or rules regulating contractors' rates, which is why we also encourage consumers to get bids so they can compare," said Charlie Durenberger, a Department of Labor and Industry licensing manager.

Whistleblower rounded up a few phone estimates from other electricians, while acknowledging the inexact nature of the exercise.

Metro Electric in Minneapolis estimated it would cost $1,800 to $2,000 to upgrade to a 100-amp service.

Norske Electric in Savage said it could cost from $1,750 "upward of $3,000, depending on existing conditions. ... It's very rare that it would go up that high."

Affordable Electric in Brooklyn Park said the job would run from $800 to $2,000, depending on conditions. Electrician Keith Petersen of Muska Electric in Roseville said simply changing out a panel would run $600 to $800.

When asked whether Mister Sparky charges some customers more, Cemensky said: "We don't charge higher prices for older folks. We have the same price for everybody, pretty much." He said his pricing reflects Mister Sparky's 24-hour availability, on-time guarantee, well-trained staff and quality materials.

Petersen mused on Mister Sparky's $3,944 charge: "Boy, I wish I could charge that. I don't know how you get any work, [though]. That's why people need to get more than one bid."

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