Seattle's proposed head tax provokes passions, divides city


    Citizens pack a Seattle City Council meeting on the proposed head tax (KOMO photo)

    SEATTLE - Hundreds crowded into Seattle City Hall on Wednesday morning vying for a chance to tell city council members their thoughts on a tax that could draw millions from big businesses to help the homeless.

    The pressure on council members have been climbing in recent days because of the controversial tax proposal. Mayor Jenny Durkan’s staff said Wednesday the public response to the employee hours, or head, tax is unlike anything she’s seen since taking office last year - nearly 1,600 emails from Seattle residents as well as letters and calls from tech workers and business leaders.

    Durkan said the issue is driving a wedge between many in the city. She told the media Wednesday that the council tax proposal, as is, is something she doesn’t support.

    “I think what is on the table right now, we have seen, does not meet the requirements I have as mayor,” Durkan said.

    Both Durkan and the council are weighing how a tax to help the homeless could be shaped. Councilmembers heard from the public for about an hour Wednesday before hearing from their staff and discussing the tax amongst themselves. Durkan said she is spending her days meeting with business leaders, homeless advocates and others.

    Seattle has not had a head tax since 2009. That tax, to pay for massive transportation projects, was repealed.

    The proposal before council now would heft a tax on about 600 employers of about $500 per employee, per year. This tax on the city’s largest three percent of businesses could raise an estimated $75 million annually - about $20 million of which would come from Amazon.

    The tax would help create affordable housing for the thousands of people living homeless in Seattle. City officials said shelters are full. People are living in doorways, cars and motels and the city says there are more than 400 unsanctioned encampments across Seattle.

    In response to the tax Amazon has said they will halt all construction on a 17-story tower and reconsider renovations on another building until the council votes on the tax. Union workers and labor organizations fired off a letter in opposition Wednesday - workers also packed city council chambers for the committee meeting.

    “If we lose block 18 and the tenant improvement in Rainier Square we’ll lose about 1.8 million union construction hours,” one man testified before the council committee weighing the tax proposal.

    Union workers, dressed in hardhats and fluorescent shirts and vests, cheered and held up signs during the hearing. They also held a lunchtime rally on the steps of city hall, and marched into the building after. Last week, a group of workers shouted down Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who backs the tax proposal, during a rally outside the Amazon spheres.

    On the other side of the issue, advocates for the homeless and affordable housing crowded into city hall Wednesday as well. They too held up signs, many reading “Tax Amazon.”

    One man, who works in homeless outreach, told the council, “It’s important that we take a little bit of tax from the greedy and give it to those who need it most.”

    Seferina Hernández told the council she’s been living homeless in an Interbay tent city with her husband for months. She said because she doesn’t have a home her two children, ages 10 and 11, were court-ordered to live with her parents in Snohomish County. She fears she will lose custody, permanently, if they don’t get stable housing soon.

    “Housing will make a difference for my family,” she said. “It will make a difference for other families too.”

    The council is expected the continue discussions on the tax this week, with a committee vote on Friday and a full council vote on Monday. In the meantime, Durkan said she’s working on her own expectations for the tax package. She said she would like to see a end date to any tax put in place, as well as some assistance from King County and the Legislature.

    “I think there should be a five-year deadline on which any new taxes go,” Durkan said Thursday. “We should have a review on how we’ve done, have we moved more people off the street?”

    If six of the nine council members approve the tax it will become law and cannot be vetoed by the mayor.

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