October 15, 2012

3 Hallowell businessmen say candidates missing the point

By Bob Keyes bkeyes@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

HALLOWELL -- Geoff Houghton owns The Liberal Cup restaurant and brew pub in Hallowell and the Run of the Mill in Saco. Between the two businesses, he employs about 120 people.

He laughs that he probably pays more different kinds of taxes to more local, state and federal agencies than anyone in Maine. He pays liquor tax, sales tax, business tax, property tax, excise tax, employment tax and worker's compensation -- and that's just for his business. He has personal income taxes to pay, as well as property taxes, income tax, sales tax and a few others he can't think of off the top of his head.

He's taxed out, but he's not complaining.

"I hate them as much as anyone, but they have to be paid to make things run. I'm more interested that they are spent wisely," said Houghton, 45, who lives in Whitefield.

This election season, with all the focus on taxes and their effect on small businesses, Houghton barely contains his frustration with both presidential candidates. The way they trade banter about taxes and small businesses, he almost feels like a pawn in their political games.

"'Small businessman' is code for 'fiscally conservative,' there's no doubt," he said, standing outside his Hallowell restaurant on a recent weekday afternoon. "And I'm fiscally conservative. I don't waste money. No small businessman believes in wasting money."

He is frustrated because both candidates talk as though they know what businesspeople like him need to succeed. They don't, he said.

"Mitt Romney touts his business principles, but he doesn't know anything about small business; and neither does (Barack) Obama," he said.

Being in business in a place such as Hallowell means being accountable to your friends and neighbors, being a part of the community.

When the Kennebec River overflows its banks, it's about helping folks across the street salvage their inventory. When a business down the block sustains a devastating fire, it's about hosting fundraisers to help them rebuild.

It's certainly not about calculating ways to save on taxes in order to make a strategic long-term business decisions. Any decision that Houghton makes about adding or subtracting employees has nothing to do with the taxes he pays. If the election's outcome saves him money on taxes, he may choose to invest in a piece of equipment or improve his property; but he certainly would not add to the payroll.

He hires exactly the number of people he needs to run his businesses efficiently. That's what successful small businesspeople do, he said. Hiring has everything to do with market demand.

"I do not think tax cutting creates jobs. Most small businessmen only hire as many people as they need. Because they pay less taxes, they're not going to create a position. My payroll is exactly what it needs to be," he said. "Why would I create a job I don't need?"

During the political season, Houghton treads on neutral turf. He's a registered independent and is not loyal to either major-party candidate -- and he refuses to say how he intends of vote Nov. 6.

Especially in today's divisive political climate, being outspoken politically is bad for business.

Either way, he figures half his clientele will be disappointed with the outcome and half will be happy. They'll both come to his establishment to celebrate or drown their sorrows. He'll be sympathetic to those who are upset and raise a toast with those who are happy.

He notes the name of his Hallowell business -- the Liberal Cup. His conservative friends chide him for his use of the word "liberal," especially in a place like Hallowell, which is famously left-leaning. Four years ago, Obama won in Hallowell by better than a 2-to-1 margin.

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