County Executive Candidates Rap Energy Tax at Business Forum

Montgomery County executive candidates — even the County Council members who are vying for a new position — found much to criticize about Montgomery’s business policies, hitting the energy tax and the lack of analysis in how legislation affects county companies.

The candidates, all Democrats running in the June 26 primary, spoke at a forum hosted by a business group called Empower Maryland, at the Universities of Shady Grove. At least 400 people attended.

The morning started with a report from economist Anirban Basu of the Sage Policy Group that showed faltering job growth and business expansion compared with the rest of the region.

Del. Bill Frick of Bethesda said the crowd should be outraged by Basu’s data, calling it an “indictment” of policies coming out of Rockville for the last 10 years.

“We should be leading not just the state, we should be leading the nation in economic development,” Frick said.

At other points in the forum, health care executive David Blair of Potomac and former Rockville mayor Rose Krasnow hit similar themes that the next county executive needs to be someone with new ideas.

“I feel confident that if you elect the same people, with the same policies you’ll get the same problems,” Blair said.

The incumbents, Krasnow said, “keep going back to what county used to do not what we need to do now.” She said the county needs to look for innovation.

The energy tax drew scorn from Frick, Krasnow, Blair and even Councilmember George Leventhal. The tax is projected to raise $194 million in the county’s fiscal 2019 spending plan.

Councilmember Marc Elrich defended the tax, however, because it supported county services during the recession.

Leventhal promised a significant reduction in the energy tax if elected.

Amazon, which could be the most significant business story if the Seattle-based company choses to locate its second headquarters site in Montgomery, was referred to only in passing.

Elrich said the county needs a strategy beyond Amazon, which would include a network of business incubators where people who want to start a business can get help on marketing and taxes.

“We need to provide people the resources to be successful,” Elrich said.

On incubators, Blair said the thought of businesses going to the government is just wrong; the county needs to be more proactive. He did, however, say he wanted his own series of incubators, including one for hospitality to build off the presence of Marriott International.

Krasnow used a question on analyzing the effects of legislation on business to bring up the November County Council decision to increase minimum wage by increment to $15 an hour.

“If we had done a fiscal analysis of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour it probably would not have looked well for the very people we’re trying to help,” Krasnow said. She said the analysis might have revealed certain businesses would switch to automation and reduce the number of jobs.

Changing the way the county treats business was a common theme.

“We do need to make it easier for businesses to succeed. We need to be your friend, not your foe; your ally, not your obstacle,” Councilmember Roger Berliner said.

Leventhal said that the county’s planning department and departments of environmental protection and permitting services will all be in located in Wheaton.

At another point in the forum, Leventhal said the county has a unique role as a gateway to the nation’s capital. As such, he promised language proficiency would be a “hallmark” of his administration.

The county has an extraordinary international population.

“We can explain to employers around the world and the around the United States if you’re in export-import business, if you’re in the business of translation, if you’re in the high-tech business, we can do business with you in your language,” he said.

Economist Anirban Basu at the Empower Maryland forum.

Frick also criticized the Department of Liquor Control, which is responsible for wholesale and retail sales of beer, wine and spirits in the county. Officials have fought proposals to privatize the department because it provides $30 million to the county treasury.

“What kind of culture do we have when the biggest issue … is extracting money from small businesses than serving them,” Frick said.

One other thing … despite some of the disturbing developments included in Basu’s report on Montgomery County, he offered one bit of bright business news: “I don’t think Amazon could make a better choice than Montgomery County.”

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About Douglas Tallman

Reporter with 35 years experience throughout Maryland. Reach me at dtallman@mymcmedia.org or via Twitter at @MCM-Doug

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