Despite possible funding cuts, Montgomery adds small-business ombudsman -- Gazette.Net



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After enjoying a 15 percent increase in funding this fiscal year, Montgomery County’s Department of Economic Development is due for a 5 percent shave next year, which starts July 1.

But that will not affect staff. In fact, the department welcomes a brand-new position on Monday with the hiring of local business executive Judy Stephenson as its small business navigator, at a salary of $80,000.

It’s the first time the county department has had such an ombudsman to help small businesses navigate the maze of county permits and regulations; it could be the first one with a county economic development outfit in the region, said Steve Silverman, director of the department.

“The overwhelmingly large majority of businesses in the county are small,” Silverman said. “This allows us to redouble our efforts to support small businesses.”

Stephenson is no stranger to county business. She was president of Gaithersburg software training company Officepro, which obtained a lot of federal contracts. She also was small business vice chair of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, and her company helped test the Internet site of Montgomery County’s small business reserve program when it started in 2006.

“She comes from the private sector, so having someone who directly understands what the needs of the business community are will be invaluable,” Silverman said.

Status quo budget

The 5 percent proposed reduction in the county department’s budget for fiscal year 2014 is workable, Silverman said. The $11.3 million would be about $600,000 less than this fiscal year, but still some $1 million more than in fiscal 2012.

The amount could be altered as the County Council reviews County Executive Isiah Leggett’s proposal. Public hearings on the budget are slated for April 9 through April 11.

The proposal adds $200,000 more to support the arts and $45,000 for outreach with local Hispanic and Asian-American chambers of commerce on the local small business reserve program and other opportunities. It also includes $15,000 for a Bethesda Green financing program designed to help clean-energy businesses.

“Those are important programs that we hope will be enacted,” Silverman said.

Proposed 8 percent cut in Frederick County

The Frederick County Business Development and Retention Division is scheduled to see an 8 percent reduction in its fiscal 2014 budget, down to about $843,000. That would be closer to what the department had in fiscal 2012.

A public hearing on the budget before the Fredrick County Board of Commissioners is slated for May 7.

Helen Riddle, manager of the business development division, said the unit is now back under Community Development after being made a stand-alone division about a year ago. The unit has added services such as helping local businesses market themselves on social media and PRWeb, and helps get commercial property listed nationally with CoStar.

Companies in the county are slowly hiring more, Riddle said.

“There is a strong spirit of entrepreneurship,” she said. “There are a lot of small companies that start and hire five to 10 at a time.”

Frederick has developed a diverse economy that is not reliant on one sector, Riddle said. But it does have a substantial hotel sector that depends a lot on federal government travel, which is susceptible to cuts in the midst of sequestration.

“Usually travel and training are among the first things the federal agencies cut,” Riddle said.

kshay@gazette.net