SHERIDAN — The importance of due diligence when selecting a contractor is something Dean Dovey learned the hard way during a vulnerable time in his life.
After the death of his mother, Evelyn Dovey, in 2011, he came to Sheridan from Michigan to settle the family’s business and attend the funeral. Dovey accepted the task of arranging for a headstone to be placed for his mother, and said he hired Chris Withrow from Sheridan Monument after seeing him working in the cemetery.
“He was clean cut, looked like a hard-working guy,” Dovey said. “That’s why I hired him.
“Where I screwed up is I thought that since we’d just settled my mother’s estate, I decided to give him the money right then.”
Dovey said he and Withrow drew up plans for a bronze statue to be placed on the grave. While the initial agreement was that the project would be done in a month and a half, that deadline came and went.
“It was embarrassing because I paid for it and thought it would be done in six weeks. I don’t know what my relatives were thinking — seeing as how there wasn’t a headstone,” Dovey said. “We had just settled my mother’s estate, so why isn’t there a marker on mother’s grave?”
Unbeknownst to Dovey, Withrow’s business had been audited months ago and was found to owe $18,000 in sales taxes. Withrow said the error occurred because his business was misclassified for tax purposes, and dealing with the legal issues resulting from the audit caused him to fall behind on his work.
“Time just got away from me,” Withrow said. “I will finish all contracts I have out. The people who have gone to court are the people who have become impatient.”
Withrow said his business’s records were taken during the audit and have not yet been returned. He admits at one point, there were as many as 10 jobs he had contracted out but missed established deadlines. Today, he said there are three or four outstanding orders.
Withrow said some customers he put on hold have gone elsewhere to have their monuments made.
“In those cases, I will reimburse people the money they paid to me,” he said. “When I get some money, I plan on taking care of my customers.”
To compound the problem, Withrow’s company, Sheridan Monument, was prohibited from further operations by the Department of Revenue.
“How am I supposed to pay these people back when I’m not making any money?” Withrow asked.
Sheridan City Clerk Scott Badley said he’s known of half a dozen unfulfilled contracts from Sheridan Monument over the past two years.
“Most communities of any size would require a license for that kind of work,” he said. “Sheridan doesn’t do that because there are very limited instances when it becomes an issue.”
Badley said the city has taken administrative action in support of the DOR to prevent Withrow from contracting more work for Sheridan’s cemetery.
“We’re not recommending anyone contact him unless they have a prior contractual arrangement and a stone that hasn’t been produced and placed,” Badley said, adding that he does not want to prevent paid-for work from being completed.
While the ideal scenario for a consumer is to not enter into a disappointing business deal, the options for procuring a refund from an unresponsive business are largely unstructured.
“The best thing to do is work with the guy and get what you’ve paid for,” Badley said.
Education and Outreach Manager for the Better Business Bureau Serving Northern Colorado and Wyoming Shelley Polansky agreed the best solution is for the two parties involved to work out disputes among themselves, but when that’s not possible, the BBB offers free mediation services when consumers and businesses clash.
“We do encourage consumers that if they can’t get a dispute worked out, they should file a complaint with us,” Polansky said, adding the BBB has a track record of solving 70 percent of disputes outside of court via mediation or binding arbitration services, which are offered free of charge.
“It’s a common practice, and it works quite well without going through the legal system,” she said.
However, accreditation with the BBB is voluntary, as is cooperation when a complaint is filed. In Dovey’s case, Withrow did not respond to his BBB complaint and he had no alternative but to go to small claims court.
Dovey won the case by default because Withrow did not show up. Even with a judgment in his favor, Dovey has been unable to recoup the money he is owed.
“Going to court was kind of a wasted effort,” he said, explaining that in order to collect what he was owed, he would have to file paperwork with multiple banks to see if Withrow had an account there that could be used to fulfill the debt. Each bank charges a filing fee for that type of inquiry, and Dovey said bank fees alone could quickly total half of the original amount he was attempting to get back.
“We didn’t have any idea what bank he had in Sheridan, or whether he had closed the account,” Dovey said, adding that the bank may not be in Sheridan. “All he has to do is move his account around.”
“The biggest blow to me was that even if you win the court case, you get no satisfaction,” Dovey said.
Withrow admitted he did not show up to several small claims hearings because he knew the judgement would be made against him and he does not have the money to pay what he owes.
Sheridan County Chamber of Commerce CEO Dixie Johnson said consumers should be on the lookout for the signs of a reputable business.
“They’re more likely to be practicing ethical business practices if they’re going to join a chamber of commerce association, or other professional organization,” she said. “That means they’re vested in the community.”
Resources for vetting businesses prior to making deals include the chamber of commerce, BBB and office of Wyoming’s Secretary of State. Johnson said that regardless of where consumers do their research, she said they’re likely to be better off if they at least ask around.
Whether bad business deals arise from intentional scamming or unintentional hangups, Johnson advised getting recommendations before hiring out contracts.
“A little research up front can save a lot of dollars in the end,” Johnson said.
Withrow is currently working as an employee to his former employee, who has opened a new monument business under a different name. Megan Mizelle is the registered owner of Wyoming Cemetery Services, Inc., but recently changed the business name to Natural Stone Art, and is working out of the same building where Sheridan Monument once operated, at 1155 Broadway.
Mizelle said she changed the business name because she wants the majority of her work to be address markers and monuments, as opposed to headstones.