Sue and Mike Jillson were frustrated.
They wanted to open an ice cream shop in Manchester, a sister shop to their popular Fielder’s Choice ice cream stand in Sabattus. They bought the land, got the permits, started construction. But suddenly, in August, someone from the Department of Transportation told them to stop.
They may have gotten approval from the town, he said, but not from the Maine DOT. There was talk of fines, traffic studies, a turning lane, possibly a red light — at a cost the couple couldn’t afford.
“I was hysterical,” Sue Jillson said. “I was thinking, ‘This is it. What have we done?'”
But 48 hours later, the crisis was over. The Jillsons were allowed to count customers at their Sabattus shop and use that figure, in lieu of a formal traffic study, to gauge how many cars the new Manchester shop might see.
They got that help from the state’s red tape hotline.
“I can’t even describe to you the relief,” Sue said.
The Maine Department of Economic and Community Development established the hotline in the spring of 2011 as part of Gov. Paul LePage’s promise to improve Maine business conditions. More than a year and a half later, the hotline can tout some success stories — including the Jillsons’ — but it is still not well-known and not well-understood.
The hotline averages only a couple of calls a month from businesspeople who need help cutting through government red tape. It gets a dozen or more calls each month from people looking for answers to other questions: Do I have to charge sales tax? How do I hire people?
And once: How do I get my son’s foreign fiancee to the United States?
“I still try to help them out,” said Cynthia Izon, management analyst for the DECD and the person responsible for answering the red tape hotline. “I say, ‘This is [for] business answers and I’ve never gotten anything like that before, but let me see if I can find a phone number to do with immigration.'”
For those who do call the hotline with a true red tape problem — a small-business owner who has gotten conflicting interpretations of a state regulation, for example — the hotline seems to help. Izon’s favorite calls are the ones in which people start off angry and hang up happy. Or if not happy, at least appeased.
“When they call the red tape hotline they’re sometimes pretty hot under the collar because they’re frustrated. I get that, so I don’t take it personal,” she said. “I try to help them out. By the time the conversation is done and I’ve headed off to try to resolve it or give it to the person who can resolve it, they’re in a much better frame of mind.”
The Jillsons called the hotline in August, afraid they were about to lose their new business. They were spending $450,000 on a Manchester ice cream shop and couldn’t afford thousands more on traffic studies and road or driveway changes. But they also couldn’t afford to walk away from the business if the MDOT said they couldn’t open.
The hotline connected them with a senior program manager at the DECD. That manager spoke to colleagues at the MDOT. The two sides quickly came to an agreement.
The MDOT would get the figures it needed through a simple customer count at the Jillsons’ other, similar shop, and the Jillsons wouldn’t have to spend money on fines, traffic studies or road changes.
“It was painless for us,” Mike Jillson said.
But not everyone is pleased with the red tape hotline. Tim Stentiford ran into myriad problems and delays when he started Motorland Vintage America, a vintage car business in Biddeford.
The hotline helped him get a federal tax ID number in one day rather than the 20 days it can normally take in Maine, but he believes the hotline should have done more than that. He believes once DECD officials learned this was a problem for new businesses, they should have pushed to make the tax ID process faster for everyone, “so that we’re competitive and we’re truly supporting businesses and we’re walking the talk that we’re ‘Open for Business,'” he said, referring to the governor’s slogan.
Doug Ray, development program manager and legislative liaison for the DECD, said Stentiford’s point is a fair one. But, he said, his department can’t tell other departments what to do. It can work with them to address an individual’s problems and it can call attention to problems.
“We’re not going to dictate to whatever department and say, ‘Hey, you better fix that,'” he said. “But certainly if it raises an issue, certainly the departments will look at it and say, ‘Well, jeez, do we need to revisit this statute?’ as they come up.”
Ray pointed out that the red tape hotline isn’t alone in working with businesspeople. The DECD runs a line for people who have questions about running a business in Maine. And state departments have designated business liaisons to help with permitting, licensing and regulatory issues — a June 2011 addition that Ray says has meant fewer calls to the red tape hotline.
But even with business liaisons and only a smattering of calls into the hotline, the DECD believes it is helpful. It promotes the number — 624-7486 — on its website, with “Red Tape Hotline” in red, capital letters next to the image of a red phone. A team of state business development experts also touts the hotline when they speak to businesses across the state.
The Jillsons say they, too, happily talk about the hotline.
Their new ice cream shop will open in the spring.