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Businesses that hire at least 51 percentage of their workforce with Prince George's County residents, are based in the county and employ a certain percentage of minority-owned businesses will begin getting preferential treatment when it comes to county contracts, council members told business owners.

County Council Chairwoman Andrea Harrison (D-Dist. 5) of Springdale and County Councilman Mel Franklin (D-Dist. 9) of Upper Marlboro held a meeting Monday with about 100 business owners at venue site Atrium at Treetops in Landover to answer questions on the Jobs First! Act, legislation passed in November. The legislation requires a hiring program to be set up at the county's career center where residents can enroll to receive priority when employers are hiring in their career field; gives priority to county-based businesses for county contracts; and establishes minority- and resident-contracting goals to ensure the participation of residents and minority-owned businesses in county projects.

“Forty percent of the jobs in the county are held by county residents,” Harrison said to the business owners. “We're looking to make sure our county-based businesses have access where we're using county dollars. The bottom line is we want to help you help us help our residents.”

The legislation goes into effect for new county agency contracts in July 2013 and then for all county agency contracts, including renewals and extensions, in January 2014.

“We're in Prince George's, but we can't get business in Prince George's, so we'd like to determine how to break through,” said Katrina Lyles, marketing assistant at consulting engineering firm Bryant Associates in Landover, which has been in the county since 2006 and has 20 employees. “I kind of have the impression that it's a good old boy network where they're recirculating the same contractors instead of reaching out to new contractors.”

Of the county's $298 million procurement allocations in fiscal 2011, 10 percent of county contracts was awarded to county-based businesses and 4.5 percent was awarded to county-based minority-owned businesses, Franklin said. The legislation would bring the numbers closer to 50 percent to county-based businesses and 30 percent for county-based minority-owned businesses.

“These were numbers we were startled to see,” Franklin said. “We clearly have too many of our residents leaving every day. A lot of the restaurants say, ‘I can't survive on one meal a day. I need that lunch crowd.' We have the workforce here. We just have to make sure they stay here.”

Businesses could lose their contract with the county if they do not maintain the goals throughout the contract, Franklin said.

M.H. Jim Estepp, CEO and president of the county's business roundtable, said the legislation is commendable in encouraging businesses to move to the county to gain contracts , but cautioned that the process could be easier to understand.

“As a cautionary note, we have to be careful not to make business in the county too arcane,” Estepp said. “This is a 34-page piece of legislation. My suggestion is to simplify it a bit and make it very clear exactly what it's trying to achieve. We're in very difficult economic times, and everything we do should be to encourage business. To put more and more layers into the process, even if the goals are worthy and lofty, we could end up discouraging businesses from locating here.”

Elizabeth Novak, a CEO of Chantilly, Va.-based Environmental Waste Specialists Inc., a trash collection company, said she was concerned how the changes could impact her business.

“I'm a certified small business in Maryland, and I'm worried that this is going to exclude me from bidding on contracts,” Novak said. “There are a lot of small businesses that count on doing business here.”

Franklin said the project's goal is to keep the county's money in the county.

“We believe our local, county-based businesses — the people who have decided to invest their life's work in Prince George's County — should be rewarded first and foremost with county dollars,” Franklin said.

The legislation is not intended to chase off non-county businesses, Franklin said, but to encourage them to partner with county-based businesses.

“If you're a Virginia or District-based business, you're probably not too happy with this, but we wanted to keep our money here,” Franklin said. “Too often we're consumers and we're not producing.”

After the presentation, Lyles said she hopes the county has the capacity to enforce the program to ensure that MBEs will be involved in more county projects.

“[Harrison] mentioned that in the past they really haven't been able to enforce that, so the proof will be in the pudding,” she said.

jlyles@gazette.net