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County needs to hire small-business aide

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By JEFF WEBB, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 7, 2002

If you're a small retail business looking to move into Hernando County, or an existing business looking to add square footage or employees, where would you look for advice?

The first call made by lots of folks in those situations is the local chamber of commerce. They expect that the chamber staff will be able to provide basic information, like maps, lists of similar businesses, or referrals to its members who are bankers, real estate sales people, contractors, etc. They also might need some advice about cutting the red tape that envelops county government.

Today, workers at the Greater Hernando County Chamber of Commerce field those calls and refer them to the county's Office of Business Development, where director Mike McHugh and a secretary do their best to lend a hand. The volume of calls is steady, and it takes a good portion of McHugh's time to respond.

Chamber leaders have an idea that could help McHugh. After months of discussions about what role the chamber could play in the county's economic development effort, they have proposed hiring an employee who would assist existing service-related and small retail businesses looking to locate here. Doing so would free McHugh to spend more time recruiting new businesses and to aid bigger ones, like the manufacturers, distributors and wholesalers in the county airport industrial complex.

But the chamber wants more than to ease McHugh's workload and give a handup to its members. It wants the county to foot the bill for the added employee. With salary, benefits and expenses, the chamber estimates it will need about $67,000 of taxpayers' money to do the job.

The proposal -- and it is important to remember that's all it is so far -- has merit.

But there's a better way to accomplish the same goal, and to do it for less money.

The county could eliminate the go-between and hire its own employee to perform those duties. Doing so could save taxpayers about $17,000, which is the approximate amount the chamber says it would spend on the employee's expenses, including travel, telephone, furniture, computer, office supplies, producing a guidebook for businesses and training. Most notable among the chamber's itemized expenditures is $8,000 to cover a percentage of the overhead costs for use of its building and administrative staff.

Many of those expenses would not apply if the new employee worked for the Office of Business Development, which already has a building, clerical support and computer access, furniture, copiers, etc.

In fact, McHugh already had included an extra position in his proposed budget for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. That position, tentatively called "program coordinator," would cost the county $50,850 in salary and benefits.

But, more important than just saving money, it would allow McHugh to directly supervise the new employee, and ensure he or she is directly accountable for successes or shortcomings.

The chamber could continue to do as it does now, and refer the bulk of its inquiries from small businesses to the county, and the new employee could act as the county's liaison to the chamber. The business outreach programs and training the chamber wants to accomplish could be handled by an employee of the county just as easily as it could a chamber worker.

If the chamber is so overwhelmed with telephone calls that require referrals, perhaps the county could donate some in-kind services to help the organization. A mailing that directs chamber members to contact the Office of Business Development directly might be a good start.

Chamber leaders deserve credit for their willingness to involve themselves in the county's economic development, and for trying to meet the needs of all their members, big and small.

But if the county can do it for less money and with greater accountability, why would they consider contracting the job with the chamber or any other organization?

The Hernando County commissioners will make the final decision on whatever proposal McHugh eventually brings to them, and it may not even be considered this budget cycle. When the time comes, though, they should opt for an in-house employee.

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