Does Seattle Need Yet More Tax Money… for the Homeless?

Before we start, I have to provide full disclosure that I do work for Amazon as a Technical Writer and part of my compensation is tied to their stock price. That said, I have also been a resident of the Seattle metro for over 18 years (4 years inside the city limits, 14 years in south Snohomish County). The statements below are my own and do not reflect any official position from Amazon. I have not been supplied with data or coaching from Amazon.

Currently the Seattle City Council is getting ready to vote on a $500 a year head tax per employee on companies making more than $20 million a year. It’s been set up as a tax to help the city solve the problem of homelessness within its borders. According to news estimates, it will raise over $70 million, around $20 million of which would come from Amazon.

It’s often justified with “Amazon makes so much money / Jeff Bezos is so rich, $20 million is just a drop in the bucket.” And if Amazon was ONLY located in Seattle, that might make sense. But since over 90% of Amazon’s workforce is outside of the Seattle City limits, that argument begins to break down. If EVERY city/state government saw Amazon’s coffers as a purse into which it could dip to shore up its budgets, it would very quickly add up to WAY more than $20 million.

But let’s look at what Amazon does to help deal with poverty and homelessness in Seattle.

Amazon is building and providing a perpetual free lease for Mary’s Place to run a 65-room shelter for homeless women and children that can house 200 or more residents. Besides the money being spent on the construction, that 47,000 square feet of space in downtown has a commercial value of $1,269,000 a year (given a lease rate of $2.25 per square foot per month). Add to that the 25,000+ square feet of space Amazon donates to FareStart (worth over $675k a year) to help FareStart train workers to lift themselves out of poverty, plus more in cash donations.

And these are just their more publicized donations.

Meanwhile, while no one is arguing that we need to do less to help the homeless, a very legitimate question is: “Will the city be able to deliver anywhere close to what it’s promising with this tax or is it just more money flushed down the endless vacuum of the dishonesty, corruption, and incompetence of Seattle’s city leaders?”

When it comes to city waste, we have 34 million for Seattle City Light’s billing system, 71 million for the Elliott Bay seawall, 60 million for the North Precinct police station, 13.4 million for the City Attorney’s office, 27+ million for the Denny Substation, and 3.5 million on a 4-block bike lane extension. To put that last one in perspective, if you’re walking at a leisurely pace of 2 miles per hour, it would take you about 10 minutes to walk the length of the full $3,800,000 extension that should have cost under $300,000.

And that’s just a few highlights of the last few years. Those combined cost overruns have added up to nearly 210 million, which, divided by 3 years, is basically about as much as the city expects this tax to produce per year, although it may be less if it causes businesses to move out of the city or decide to abandon expansion plans in the city. It’s entirely possible that the city will just come back to us in a couple of years, after the homeless crisis has worsened even further, and say they need more money because their dishonesty, corruption, and incompetence frittered away hundreds of millions in head taxes.

With just a FRACTION of that head tax, Amazon is helping hundreds of homeless and low income people get off the street and find better jobs. I’d like to believe that’s because Amazon believes it has a responsibility to its shareholders to ensure that its charitable giving has significant impact and delivers significant results. Sadly, Seattle’s city council apparently has NO sense of fiscal responsibility to the voters of Seattle and apparently no fear that the City Attorney’s office would ever launch investigations into these cost overruns, since it would then have to investigate itself.

I’m sorry, but this head tax is just to make up for the city having to shuffle around other dollars to compensate for its massive dishonesty, corruption, and incompetence. As much as I want to help the homeless, imposing MORE taxes is not the way to do it. This would be better done by holding the Seattle City Council and the agency heads who report to it responsible for all this waste with an independent auditor and prosecutor who could put all these corrupt and incompetent members of Seattle’s city government (and their cronies) in jail and/or out of a job.

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