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Originally published January 12, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 12, 2009 at 4:28 PM

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Guest columnist

Don't forget economy's small-business backbone in stimulus efforts

American small business combined employ more people than Fortune 500 companies combine. But because they are not large, influential companies, Issaquah business operator April Bettinger argues, they risk being forgotten in efforts to stimulate the economy.

Special to The Times

I am a small-business operator and I am struggling. I am no different than thousands of my peers. We are not struggling because we are new, poorly managed or deliver inferior products. We are not struggling because we didn't watch the economy, save money for a rainy day or adapt our marketing efforts.

We are struggling because our clients, middle-class Americans, have temporarily closed their wallets and are in a state of "let's wait and see what happens." I'm in the same boat and have also had to cut back on spending. I'm looking for answers like everyone else. And, more importantly, my employees are looking to me for answers, guidance and reassurance.

We are not the giant banks and automobile manufacturers of America. We are not the Fortune 500 companies — but combined, small businesses are a major part of the economy in every community across the state and the country.

My company and its sister company produce about $6 million dollars of revenue, provide household-supporting jobs for two dozen people and their families, and contribute our fair share to the local tax authorities and the cities in which we operate. My business, like many of my peers, has cut overhead, laid off employees for the first time, reduced hours and cut paychecks — mine included, by about 25 percent. We are optimistically cleaning house, updating processes and creating new programs for our staff to sell. There is opportunity in change.

We all know that money will begin flowing and our clients will start spending again, but the question is how do we survive in the interim? Billions of dollars are being allocated to the "big guys" and tax credits have been given to individual taxpayers. What are the resources available to help our small businesses bridge the gap?

Can the Small Business Administration offer bridge loans? I know an influx of cash would be welcomed by small businesses to help bridge this uncertainty so we are still here to serve our clients when the economy rebounds. Mortgage companies provide bridge loans when there is a gap between buying and selling a home — I see this as a similar situation.

What tax or fee relief can be sent to our businesses? Last year, Gov. Christine Gregoire gave us a "rate holiday" on our state Labor and Industries premium. Although this was most beneficial to employees, it was money that we didn't have to pay out of our pockets. Even a 25-percent decrease in our premium would equate to about $1,000 per month — every dollar helps right now.

Are there incentives that can be given to companies that provide medical and dental insurance to their employees? The cost of this is staggering for a small business.

Can credit or relief be given to those companies that provide and match 401(k) accounts for their employees? We encourage saving and, of my eligible employees, all participate in this plan at the maximum level. This means almost 4 percent of my payroll is being matched and put into our financial markets.

My point is that there is power in numbers. A huge portion of our business economy is made up of small business. When we lay off 25 percent of our work force — or worse yet — go out of business in record numbers, that many fewer people will be spending money on mortgages, buying cars, traveling, hiring house cleaners and landscape services, getting their hair cut, or taking care of their homes. You name it, people will cut it out if they have to.

My biggest question is who will use new infrastructure if they don't have a job?

I say we need to start paying attention to these small businesses. We are the engine that powers the economy.

April Bettinger is general manager of Shirey Handyman Service in Issaquah.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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