Hawaii critics small but vocal at SBA session
By Curtis Lum
Advertiser Staff Writer
The U.S. Small Business Administration's national ombudsman held a forum in Honolulu yesterday to hear complaints and concerns from local small-business owners, but just three people showed up to testify.
Ombudsman Nicholas Owens said the small turnout is one of the reasons he's touring the country. He said he wants small-business owners to know that his office exists and is there to help. Owens flew in from Washington, D.C., for yesterday's forum, one of 20 roundtable hearings he has scheduled nationally this year.
Owens acknowledged that one reason few people turned out is many owners haven't heard of his office.
"It's an issue of outreach," Owens said. "Sometimes it may be an issue where small-business owners are not having regulatory enforcement concerns. But I'm not from that school of thought. I believe that there are issues, but it's an issue of them knowing who to go to to resolve their concerns."
The Office of the National Ombudsman was created in 1996 to ensure businesses, nonprofit groups and small government entities that experience unfair regulatory enforcement actions a means to file complaints and comments. The office then works with agencies that are the target of the complaints in an attempt to work out a solution.
Each year, the office also files a report to Congress on how federal agencies have treated businesses.
Owens said his office has reached settlements that have saved small businesses nearly $230 million since the ombudsman position was created. He said the cost to small businesses to comply with federal regulations is about $7,600 per employee each year.
Although just three men spoke yesterday, each complained about what they believed was retaliation by the federal agencies for actions the business owners took while dealing with the government.
Walter Chun, head of the management and consulting firm OSHCON Inc., said a big problem contractors face is there is no accountability when dealing with the military. He said if contractors believe they are being treated unfairly, there is no one to turn to for help.
Chun also said that the companies that do complain are sometimes subjected to harassment by federal officials.
"This room would be five times its size if all of these small businesses really spoke up," Chun said. "The clients that I contacted, telling them about this forum, not one of them was willing to testify because they're afraid."
One contractor who did speak out was Terry Metcalf, owner of Metcalf Construction, who said he has been the victim of retaliation since he challenged the awarding of a military housing contract six years ago. After a long legal battle, his company was awarded the contract, but Metcalf said he has paid the price since.
Metcalf said the military has intentionally delayed the project and forced him to comply with unfair regulations that have led to his company being nearly $17 million in debt. The project has been completed, but Metcalf said he has filed a $26 million claim against the military to recover his losses.
"Do not think that you're going to come into the federal government contracting arena and it's going to be easy, that you're going to make money and they're going to let you do it the way you want to do it because it's not that way," Metcalf said.
Irwin Cockett, vice president of the security firm Hana Group, complained yesterday that the SBA national office has been dragging its feet on applications filed with that office on behalf of Native Hawaiian businesses. Cockett said the delays are costing the companies opportunities to do work with the federal government.
"Were it not for our dedication and commitment to help our Native Hawaiian people, we would fold our tent and fade away," Cockett said. "The bureaucracy of this whole thing makes for a very difficult working environment."
Owens said that the fear of retaliation may have played a role in the low turnout yesterday, but said businesses may file confidential complaints to his office. He praised the three who did testify yesterday.
"They spoke passionately of their concerns, and small-business owners are passionate," Owens said. "We as the federal government need to be more responsible to small-business concerns."
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