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As sequestration starts, concern in Howard builds

Howard County business officials still are learning how the federal sequestration will affect the county's economy, but once Congress missed its March 1 deadline for an agreement avoiding the cuts, one local business already was feeling the effects.

Maureen Thomas, executive director of the Howard County Chamber of Commerce's GovConnects, said last week she met with one Howard County-based government contractor who was considering which employees to let go.

"They're starting to hand out pink slips already," she said.

Thomas declined to name the company or how many employees would be let go.

Sequestration is a set of automatic, across-the-board spending cuts that began to take effect March 1, when Congress failed to reach an agreement.

Many federal employees could to be furloughed by the cuts, and county officials have been stressing the negative impact because more than 50,000 county residents are federal employees or government contractors.

Gov. Martin O'Malley last week joined Howard County Executive Ken Ulman at FLIR Systems in Elkridge to urge Congress to avoid sequestration. FLIR manufactures thermal imaging and threat detection systems used by the military.

The chamber recently launched GovConnects, which is aimed at helping area businesses take advantage of government contracting opportunities.

Mike Muscatello, a member of the GovConnects Advisory Council and a partner with Aronson Accounting Services in Rockville, described the implementation of sequestration cuts for his clients as a "long, slow slope."

He added: "It's just going to make getting the job done that much more difficult, even if there is funding available."

Larry Twele, acting president and CEO of the Howard County Economic Development Authority, said the authority realizes sequestration will have some impact, but it's not clear how much.

A large part of the county workforce is involved in the cybersecurity field and that could be one of the last departments affected by sequestration because of its importance, Twele said. But he couldn't say for certain that it would remain untouched.

"It's the new battlefield," he said of cybersecurity, specifically mentioning the work at Fort Meade and the National Security Agency. "It's one of the highest priorities of the Department of Defense and Homeland Security."

Pam Klahr, president and CEO of the Howard County Chamber of Commerce, said local businesses are stuck in a "wait-and-see mode" that has been causing frustration for months.

"Local businesses could be adding jobs and expanding their operations, but instead this lack of predictability halts productivity at a time when things should be picking up," she said.

The chamber will help local businesses get more information and a broader picture of the state's business climate at its next member luncheon March 20, Klahr said.

Dominick Murray, the Secretary of Maryland's Department of Business and Economic Development, will be the guest speaker to discuss manufacturing and government contracting.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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