An initiative by Montgomery County officials to give more contracts to small businesses is growing, but company owners say the county needs to do more to help them.
About 80 business executives and owners met with County Councilman George Leventhal, D-at large, to discuss the county's small-business climate -- which they say needs to be improved -- and the county's Local Small Business Reserve Program, which reserves 20 percent of county service contracts for small businesses.
Though the program has grown from $33.2 million in fiscal 2009 to $58.1 million in fiscal 2011, small-business owners say they have trouble navigating the cumbersome process. Others said they were at a disadvantage to win contracts because they were unfamiliar with the government and didn't know how to navigate the process.
Judy Stephenson, owner of Officepro Inc., said the procurement process in Montgomery County is complicated and slow.
"It took me personally six years of concerted effort to get a contract with Montgomery County," she said. "That didn't happen other places."
She said her company has multiple contracts with companies in Fairfax, Arlington and Prince William counties and won those without a special program dedicated to small businesses.
Steve Silverman, director of the Montgomery County Department of Economic Development, said the program allows county small businesses to bid for contracts that are less than $10 million. He said the program -- which was created in 2008 -- is a work in progress, though it is allowing small businesses to compete with larger companies for county projects.
Leventhal said hearing the concerns of business owners will help him and other lawmakers tweak the program to make it more efficient. A new position has been created to help businesses navigate their options when bidding for contracts. Leventhal said the county is making offers to candidates for the position.
"There's a lot of interest in getting contracts, and I want people to be realistic," he said. "Certainly, I'm interested in looking at ways we can strengthen local [business] preferences."
Charles Atwell, co-chairman of the Small Business Committee of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, said the program is a good start, but he thinks the county can do more to promote local business.
"There's a positive perspective about helping small business," said Atwell, who is also the president of Innovative Business Interiors. "I think we are being heard. The next step is, are they going to make some policy changes to make it a reality?"