Cathy Kudlinski and her husband had been thinking about taking on new workers at their Absolute Auto Repair shop in Dover this summer.
They accelerated their timetable after learning of a new Hillsborough County incentive program that temporarily helps pay wages of new workers hired by homegrown small businesses. Now an auto repair shop that had three employees in March has double that number.
"We said, well it's a few months early, but we felt we'd go ahead and try," Kudlinski said. "The shop makes a whole lot more money when you can get more people in here."
The Kudlinskis are taking advantage of a fairly distinctive government jobs-boosting effort, one that specifically targets the backbone of most local economies: small businesses. It offers partial wage reimbursement to business owners with no more than 10 employees who agree to take on up to three more workers for at least three months.
At the end of the three months, the companies qualify for half of what they paid the new workers, up to $3,900 for each hire. Even minimum-wage jobs qualify, though the subsidy could cover half the pay of someone making a little more than $16 an hour.
Government officials reasoned that any work is better than none for the county's swollen ranks of unemployed.
"The clear intent of this was, to those that are prepared or are on the brink of needing new staff, to give them an incentive to do that sooner rather than later," said Gene Gray, the county's director of economic development. "With unemployment hovering near 12 percent, we felt we had to do something."
Most government business incentive programs promise tax breaks, land or direct cash subsidies to large companies promising to create lots of high-paying jobs. In November, voters approved another version of that same model, offering partial property tax refunds to new or expanding businesses that create at least 10 jobs with better-than-average pay in certain desirable industries such as the sciences.
Though that program has been in existence since early February, it has yet to yield a single job. The small-business wage rebate program has already accepted applications from 20 companies promising to create 48 jobs.
"That's the equivalent of a major corporation coming to town," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman, who championed the program that was put into place in mid March. "It's just an easy win."
Murman applauded the property tax rebate program, which was pushed by fellow Commissioner Ken Hagan. But she felt it and other efforts did little to help existing businesses, particularly smaller ones that might be willing to take on an additional worker or three as the economy shows signs of life.
After all, economic development officials estimate that 70 percent of the Hillsborough County work force is employed at small business.
Murman did some brainstorming with those officials. They crafted something that is deliberately simple, but also limited in nature.
They identified $500,000 that was set aside in a pool for industry promotion. When it runs out, the program comes to an end — but theoretically it could help pay for 20 new jobs.
Qualifying businesses must be based in Hillsborough County and open for at least two years. The people they hire also must be county residents.
The employers also must agree to participate in four hours of county classes that teach skills aimed at helping them stay in business. But there are few other requirements beyond that.
At the end of three months, the business owner must show he paid his new employees for the three months. That's when they get paid back.
Gray, with the county's economic development office, said they evaluated several wrinkles, such as greater reimbursements for companies that pay more. They also looked at delaying repayment until the six-month mark to ensure the companies retain their workers.
"We didn't feel like we had the leverage to demand that," said Gray, who added that the county will nevertheless survey those companies later to see how much the seed money caused permanent jobs to take root.
Yvonne Fry, who has a four-person telecommunications consulting business, Lines of Communication, based in Plant City, said she is confident that in her case, they will.
Fry said she contemplated expanding her business for some time. When she heard about the program, she rushed in an application and found herself first in line.
"This really just emboldened us to say we're going to dig in and we think the market's improving," Fry said. "This is a long-term play for us."
Bill Varian can be reached at (813) 226-3387 or email@example.com.