ROCKVILLE – The county executive and a county councilmember are asking residents and local small business owners what about working in the county is more challenging than in the other places they have considered working.
County Executive Marc Elrich asked County Councilmember Sidney Katz (D-3) to help him make the county more suitable for small businesses.
The first step in the program is asking residents and local small business owners for feedback about what in the county is helpful and what in the county’s regulations and policies poses challenges for small businesses, through a series of listening sessions across the county.
The county is calling the program Benchmarking to Be the Best for Business, or 4Business. Katz and Elrich had their first of several listening sessions with the public on April 17 in the hope of making the county better for small businesses.
Katz said he was interested in hearing from the public because he used to own a business when he was the mayor of the City of Gaithersburg.
“We want to identify things that Montgomery County can reasonably do to help, as quickly as we can,” Katz told the people attending the meeting.
Elrich and residents representing small businesses agreed during the listening session that reform is needed for county requests for proposal.
“Multiple people (are) telling me they’ve tried to get contracts with the county but that the contracts aren’t worth dealing with,” Elrich said after the meeting in council chambers April 17.
Elrich had heard comments from residents when he was a county councilmember, prior to becoming county executive.
Kris Colby, who works for his wife’s small business Backyard Bounty, agreed saying he would like to do contracting work for the county, but time spent reading hundreds of pages of a county request for proposal (RFP) is “time I’m not spending on assisting customers.” He said a problem unique to his field is that the county has few opportunities to acquire more land for his business because of zoning and land-use codes.
Susan Mullineaux, owner of small business DCMM Architects, said she is concerned about the “business environment” in the county.
Mullineaux’s company has existed for more than half a century and has completed work for the county government previously. She asked a question about small business contracts.
“From a small business standpoint, what is being done and what can be done to enforce the percentage of small business spending by the various department heads in the county?” Mullineaux asked. “There seems to be some question as to whether or not that’s really been occurring in the past.”
Katz and Elrich mostly did not respond to questions the speakers asked, with Mullineaux being one of the exceptions. Elrich answered that the county is considering
“unbundling” some contracts.
“We have a new procurement director, and he is taking this very seriously — both the small business and the minority procurement parts of this — neither of which we have done nearly as well as we ought to be doing,” said Elrich.
Julie Verratti, co-founder of Denizens Brewing Co., said one aspect of owning a small business that can be challenging at times is unpredictability. She thanked the council member and county executive for planning several listening sessions in case community members could not attend the first one.
The randomness is not limited to one’s schedule. Frequently-changing policies make operating a small business “stressful and uncertain,” Verratti said.
“It’s never that there’s one specific regulation that’s the thing that makes it difficult to do business,” said Verratti. “It’s this sort of death-by-a-million-cuts, and the sort of one-year, this-is-what-the-regulation’s-gonna-be, and then the law will change.”
Verratti finished by saying she believes county staff are helpful and pleasant and she is happy to share her experiences to help improve the business situation in the county.
Markus Larsson, a county resident and executive director of Life Asset, said he attended the meeting “to learn more” about the 4Business program.
“The intent is to make a better business climate, and I’m happy with that,” Larsson said.
Larsson said he was encouraged by the fact that Elrich and Katz were stepping out into the community to talk to the public. He said he believes they were genuine when they said they want to effect change in the county for small businesses.
“It is promising (that) it will become better,” said Larsson, about the business environment in the county.
Elrich said he and Katz are working together on the traveling listening sessions because they had cooperated on “minimum wage stuff” and because Katz used to own a small business.
“I thought he would be somebody who people would have a greater level of confidence with, than somebody who hasn’t been a business person,” Elrich said of Katz. “He’s the ideal person to do this.”
At the start of the meeting, Diane Schwartz Jones, director of the Department of Permitting Services, said a court reporter will transcribe all the meetings and the transcripts will be made temporarily available to the public.
During the April 17 meeting, members of the public were outnumbered by employees representing various county departments. Elrich said he did not mind the high county employee turnout because it means they are paying attention.
“Well, that’s the daytime,” Elrich said about the number of people who attended. “There are people who listened.”
Elrich said he expects the nighttime sessions will be better attended because people who work during the day will likely be off work in the evening.
“This is the start of a change process; we’re committed to making these changes,” said Elrich.
Verratti said she was grateful for the program Elrich and Katz are starting.
“I think having sessions like this is going a long way to putting yourself in the shoes of business owners and really learning what the day-to-day looks like for them,” said Verratti to Elrich and Katz.