David Blair is chairman of Accountable Health Solutions and co-founder of the think tank Council for Advocacy and Policy Solutions. He was a candidate in the 2018 Democratic primary for Montgomery County executive.

Montgomery County has been fighting its poor business reputation for years. It’s not exactly clear why Montgomery County’s economic development falls short of its neighboring counties, but anecdotally you hear it’s the high income and energy taxes, antiquated alcohol regulations, bureaucratic permitting or just plain poor customer service.

Regardless, the business growth statistics are staggering. From 2008 through 2018, the Washington region’s number of business establishments grew by 11 percent, and Montgomery County’s shrank by 1 percent. For Montgomery County to prosper, we need a flourishing business environment. Clearly this negative business trend needs to reverse. People who commute to other counties for work drive tax dollars to other jurisdictions and further strain our transportation system.

So, to quote former president Barack Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, “Never allow a good crisis go to waste.” The novel coronavirus crisis, as unprecedented and tragic as it is, presents an opportunity for Montgomery County to lead the region in support of local businesses and brand our community as business friendly.

On March 20, County Executive Marc Elrich (D) announced a $20 million fund to support small businesses. Businesses with 100 or fewer employees can receive grants of up to $75,000. Twenty million dollars sounds like a lot, but Montgomery County’s business community is expansive. According to the Census Bureau, the county has approximately 27,000 businesses with fewer than 100 employees. Assuming half of these businesses apply for assistance, the county could provide each business approximately $1,500 (which perhaps pays part of a monthly rent invoice or helps retain a minimum-wage employee for several weeks). Clearly, it’s not enough to cover all losses, and businesses will need to rely on federal and state relief packages to keep afloat or reopen after the pandemic.

So, if we’re going to spend $20 million of our tax dollars, what are we buying?

The $20 million could be used as a tangible token of our gratitude to small-business owners. Thanking them for taking the risk, maxing out their credit cards, borrowing money from family, forgoing family vacations, etc. It’s recognition that their business losses now are of no fault of their own and that they are a vital part of our community. We need and want them back.

But, for these funds to buy good will, the funds need to be made available quickly and seamlessly or Montgomery County will be doing business as usual.

It took Montgomery County almost four weeks after its initial announcement of the grant program to open a website for small businesses to apply for grants. In contrast, the District opened and closed its application process in half the amount of time. The county executive announced that only half of the funds will be distributed now and on a first come first serve basis (presumably to the first 1,000 businesses leaving 26,000 with nothing). The overly complex plan does not reflect the legislators’ wishes and will ensure the funds are distributed in an inequitable manner.

It’s not too late to simplify and expedite the process. The county should commit to releasing the full $20 million set aside to the maximum number of recipients. All that is needed is a secure online form for businesses to input their name, address, industry, federal employer identification number, bank account information, number of employees and an attestation that the business will use best efforts to stay open or reopen in Montgomery County.

Montgomery County, along with the rest of the nation, is in a serious economic crisis, and this is just the beginning. In the coming months, we’ll have tough budgetary choices as income and property tax revenues drop. Wouldn’t it be nice to have the small-business community on our side?

If our county government can execute on a local relief package quickly and efficiently, it could be the first step to becoming a more nimble, responsive and business-friendly jurisdiction. Let’s show them we care. Otherwise, it’s just more of the same.

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