SOUTHERN COLORADO — Some homeowners tell News 5 Investigates they regret doing business with Sopris Solar, a Colorado-based company. In a previous News 5 Investigates report, homeowners say they were lured in with the promise of having their energy bills eliminated, but some of those folks are telling Chief Investigative Reporter Eric Ross that they're left with a financial mess.
Imagine signing a contract and paying tens of thousands of dollars for panels, only to find out you are still receiving pricey energy bills.
To make matters worse, a handful of homeowners now have liens on their homes because of an ongoing "billing" dispute between the solar company and subcontractors who installed the panels.
Records show Nathan Billmaier is the owner of Sopris Solar. Customers later discovered he is also a convicted felon stemming from a 2014 ID theft and forgery case out of Denver.
Court documents show Billmaier accepted a plea deal in that case---entering a guilty plea for attempting to influence a public servant. That charge is a Class 4 felony.
He was sentenced to 10 days in jail and 2 years on probation.
Court records also show his company has a bit of financial trouble. A 2019 judgment reveals his business owes a lending firm nearly $90,000.
It's all background information homeowners like Melvin Cole had no clue about until after they entered into contracts with Sopris.
"We did some research and looked at some other companies," Cole said. "Sopris had a five star rating with the Better Business Bureau."
A BBB search for "Sopris Solar" now reveals the company has a "no rating" grade and a "current alert" for consumers.
"BBB files indicate that Sopris Solar has a pattern of complaints concerning Billing, Contact, Customer Service, Refund, Repair and Service issues," the BBB said in a statement on its web site.
Cole signed a contract for solar in 2019---financing nearly $40,000 for the project over a 20-year period.
"They said it would increase our home value/resale by upwards of $40,000," Cole said. "The financing was amazing and they boasted the federal tax credit and pushed us to act quickly because the tax credit was going to end."
With the exception of a metering fee, Cole says his utilities bills were supposed to be eliminated moving forward, but that didn't happen.
"This winter our bills have been in excess of $250 a month," he said.
However, the real slap in the face came when Cole received a letter in the mail.
"We got a notice that we had a registered letter at the post office," Cole said. "We went to the post office and got a letter, opened it and it said 'intent to file a lien' on behalf of Lon Star Construction."
News 5 Investigates uncovered Lone Star Construction is a third-party company based out of Texas that was hired by Sopris Solar to install the panels.
Lone Star Construction told homeowners and KOAA Chief Investigative Reporter Eric Ross that they weren't paid for the work they did, which resulted in liens being placed on homes.
"We were never told there would be subcontractors," Cole said. "There's nothing about this and the subcontractor is telling us we owe them this money by filing the lien and I don't know who these people are."
In Cole's case, the lien shows the subcontracting company is owed nearly $12,000.
Sopris' attorney, Seamus Ryan sent a letter to Cole in August 2019. You can read a copy of that letter here.
"Sopris will pay Lone Star the disputed amount under protest to obtain Lone Star's release of the lien," Ryan told Cole. "As I conveyed to you, Sopris covenants to you that the matter will either be settled or payment under duress to Lone Star will be made no later than September 15, 2019 (and likely much sooner). Sopris and I very much appreciate your patience."
Fast forward to today---no resolution.
News 5 Investigates reached out to Ryan for comment on this situation.
"I have not represented Sopris Solar since the beginning of November 2019, Ryan said via email. "All future inquiries should be directed to the principals of the company."
"Nathan has now ceased any contact with us," Cole said. "He refuses to return phone calls. We've tried repeatedly to call. We've left messages at his office."
Cole isn't the only homeowner battling liens and problems getting a hold of Billmaier.
"There were excuses or there was no answer," homeowner Jo Self said told News 5 late last year. "We contracted to do something that was supposed to help us economically and help the earth and here we are."
Sopris Solar has installed panels in homes across Pueblo and as far north as Cheyenne, WY.
"This is showing us that it's making solar," homeowner Nancy Sirois said.
She and her husband also had a lien on their home after the same subcontractors from Lone Star Construction say Sopris Solar didn't pay them.
Homeowners say they feel they were sold empty promises.
"They gave us a really great spiel (talk) about solar and all of the savings we could get," Cole said.
Now, homeowners are just hoping to save their homes and praying for a resolution.
Response for Billmaier:
After multiple phone conversations with Billmaier beginning in the fourth quarter of 2019, he issued the following statement to News 5 Investigates on Thursday, Feb. 6, 2020 at 6:31 p.m.:
Sopris Solar does not agree with how our company has been portrayed in recent months regarding alleged liens placed on customers' homes and alleged issues with the solar production of TWO out of our 280+ customers. Sopris has had a positive presence in the Pueblo area since 2016 and has over 280+ customers throughout the Colorado Front Range. Moreover, we have not had a single complaint from any customer until we hired Lone Star Construction from Texas as a subcontractor. In fact, the reason why we have had our BBB rating suspended until March 11 is specifically because of Lone Star Construction's work on six of our customers. As a Solar Company, we need to hire subcontractors from time to time when we are inundated with customer requests for installation. It is our responsibility to hire competent, honest subcontractors and we felt that we had accomplished this when we hired Lone Star Construction from Texas. What we did not account for was that this subcontractor would cause issues for a handful of customers. Our installation department noticed a variety of billing issues that started to occur from Lone Star. These issues ranged from, 1) charging for work that was not completed, 2) charging "overnight fees" that did not occur; 3) charging outside of the contractual per Watt rate, and 4) charging Sopris Solar for electrical work that Sopris Solar employees had performed. What was more alarming is that we found out that Lone Star did not pay their employees for the work that they were charging Sopris Solar for completing as well. After numerous settlement discussions, the owners of Lone Star refused to settle on an amount that reflected the actual work done by their Company. As a contractor, we refuse to be bullied into paying a subcontractor for incomplete or inferior work. Again, we have and continue to reach out to Lone Star to settle this dispute. As for the issue with Melvin Cole and Jo Self's system production. We, nor any other solar company, can guarantee system production or utility bill payments for a number of reasons. All solar systems will produce less during the winter months because of the lack of daylight sun-hours and the occasional inclement weather. More importantly, as a company, we cannot gauge whether a homeowner will have an event that will cause their electric bills to increase, i.e. extended family staying at the home, new electronics, space heaters, electrical furnace or water heater, electric car, etc. This is why we always evaluate a customer's solar system after one full year of production. If there is a need to augment their system or if we need to check the equipment for warranty issues, this can be done at this point. As for Jo Self's system, we checked her third-party monitoring system and it is under producing by .0325 %. After a full year, if she is still underproducing, we will reevaluate her production and her utility needs. As for Melvin Cole, his system has been overproducing up until these winter months which is expected. As we mentioned above, all customers will receive a small bill in the winter months because there are fewer daylight sun-hours, less solar irradiance and the as we know in Colorado, the occasional snowstorm. Again, this is not indicative of customers' overall solar production. During the summer months, systems will overproduce and will produce credits that you can use towards your solar bill during the winter. Again, Mr. Cole has not had a full year of production so it is impossible to predict his systems overall production. As for any mention of any civil or criminal judgment against CJR Partners LLC and people associated with CJR Partners LLC. This judgments have been satisfied and settled and have no relation to Sopris Solar and the work that we have done since 2014. We take pride in the work that we have done over the years and take responsibility for the mistakes that occurred because of decisions from upper management that are no longer with the company. Since our restructuring, we have weeded out the presence of any individuals and subcontractors that do not align with Sopris Solar's mission statement. We feel that if this story included the 280+ happy customers instead of the handful of upset customers it would represent a clearer representation of Sopris Solar and our body of work.
Lone Star Construction:
Lone Star Construction tells News 5 they no longer do business with Sopris Solar and the ongoing dispute over payment continues.
Tips when investing in solar:
Get multiple estimates.
Don't just rely on one web site for reviews. Check multiple web sites and ask your neighbors for advice if they've already made the investment.
You may be asked to sign two contracts. Read both of them. The first may be a contract for solar services/installation, and the second may include a contract for financing.
Ask the company if they are going to use contractors.
Get everything in writing. Verbal promises can be difficult to prove in court.
Make sure the contract is filled out completely, with an itemized invoice of all services and a "completion date" for the project.
Have an issue with a contracting company or business? You can file a complaint with the Better Business Bureau by calling 719-636-1155.
You can also report problems to the Consumer Protection Division at the Colorado Attorney General's Office. Their number is 720-508-6000.
Despite Sopris saying that it's $87,680 judgment has been "satisfied", court records as of Feb. 7, 2020 show the judgement is "unsatisfied".
Transparency report and common questions:
Q: How did this story come about?
A: This story came to us through a viewer news tip. Further research led us to believe this case wasn't an "isolated" incident. After speaking with other homeowners, we discovered there
Q: Did you ask Mr. Billmaier for an on-camera interview?
A: Yes, Billmaier said he was not available for an on-camera interview, but we gladly accepted his statement.
Q: Do homeowners have any legal recourse?
A: We know some homeowners have been in contact with attorneys. We'll update you as new information becomes available.
Q: You mentioned that Billmaier had a criminal record and owed money from a judgment against his business. How did you find this information out?
A: It was a homeowner who alerted us to Billmaier's criminal record. We then confirmed that through the Denver Court System and online court records. It's important to note that a criminal history doesn't always disqualify someone from owning a business. As a good practice, consumer experts typically recommend homeowners always do their research and background check contractors and people they plan to hire for work.
Q: If additional homeowners come forward with problems, will you share our stories?
A: KOAA News 5 is glad to speak with anyone who is willing to share their story. We require documentation and evidence about your case prior to running a story. If you'd like to talk with us, you can send an email to News5Investigates@KOAA.com.