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.
The name of his business has nothing to do with politics, however, Houghton said. The name refers to the bountiful mugs of beer that he’s fond of serving. Being generous with food and drink is the kind of decision that’s good for business, he said.
From his perch behind the counter at Kennebec Cigar across the street, Tim Giggey also has a pretty good sense of what’s good for business: cheap gas and oil.
“What really affects this business is the price of gas and the price of heating oil. The guy who buys a $15 cigar when gas is cheap buys an $8 cigar when gas is $4 a gallon,” said Giggey, who lives in town. “The price of crude coming out of the Middle East isn’t affected by who’s president. It’s affected by bankers and big business.”
He agrees with Houghton. Neither candidate knows much about small business, and most of the small-business talk is rhetoric. He plans to vote for Obama. The president inherited a bad economic situation and has improved it, he said. Besides, he added, Romney is unproven and untrustworthy, and doesn’t have Giggey’s best interest at heart, personally or otherwise.
“That 47 percent thing is too much of a bell to unring,” he said.
Walk into Merrill’s Bookshop on the second floor of a Water Street, and there’s no question where shop owner John Merrill stands politically. He is decidedly left of center. He tapes political cartoons across his bookshelves and isn’t afraid of expressing his opinion.
Merrill has been in business 22 years. He is known for stocking unusual, rare and scholarly books. His shelves are packed with first editions.
He doesn’t sell a single book online, but his customers come from the across the country to find books that only Merrill has.
He is the shop’s sole employee and has no plans to hire additional help, regardless of the outcome of the election. If Romney wins, Merrill’s taxes are going up, he said, and that would be bad for his business and most businesses up and down Water Street.
“The key thing for small businesses like you see in Hallowell is the fact that you need increased consumption,” said Merrill, who lives in Augusta. “This is one place where Romney and his team have it absolutely wrong. It’s not a question of giving people more money at the top. No one is going to create more jobs unless there are people at the bottom who can afford to buy their products.”
Bob Keyes — 791-6457