Joel Werdell walked his children through the Columbia City farmers market to a “Tax Amazon” table, hoping to teach them a civics lesson – and Whitney Kahn, a preschool teacher and member of the Socialist Alternative Party, was happy to oblige.
“Does everyone deserve a home?” Kahn asked the kids, as they nodded. “If you had a lot of money, would you help? Does Amazon have a lot of money?”
The youngsters looked puzzled. So their dad, a tech-company product company manager, continued the discussion, pressing Kahn on whether local leaders can use tax dollars wisely to help homeless people.
Cradling a clipboard next to Dick’s Drive-In in Wallingford, Marvin Rosete tried to strike up a conversation on the same topic.
“Would you like to help us repeal the Seattle head tax?” Rosete called out, as a customer queued up for a burger and fries. “With the hundreds of people I’ve talked to, accountability is the No. 1 issue.”
As City Hall critics collect petition signatures to put a business-backed referendum on the November ballot, people across Seattle are talking about the city’s newest tax.
“This has touched a nerve with everybody,” said Louise Chernin, president of the Greater Seattle Business Association.
Earlier this year, deliberations over the tax of $275 per employee, per year on large companies were mostly limited to City Hall, as social-justice activists and City Council members sought more money for low-income housing and homeless services.
Now the debate has moved to the streets, with paid and volunteer signature collectors competing against supporters of the tax in a battle for public opinion.
In the background are thousands of people living in tents, vehicles and shelters.
Some of Seattle’s largest companies – including Amazon – are bankrolling the No Tax on Jobs campaign, backed up by residents who say their trust in City Hall has eroded. Despite recent spending hikes, homelessness has continued to grow, they say.
Defenders of the tax insist massive investments must be made to build the amount of low-income housing needed to counter years of rent and home-price increases.
The per-employee tax is an imperfect tool, they admit, but a state judge recently struck down Seattle’s attempt to impose an income tax on wealthy households.
Passed by the council last month, the head tax is supposed to raise about $47 million a year, starting in 2019.
The referendum campaign, which has until Thursday to submit 17,632 valid signatures, expects to blow past that number. The war will likely rage all summer and fall.
The tax applies to companies grossing at least $20 million per year in Seattle – an estimated 3 percent of all businesses, and some are spending money to try to make sure they never have to pay.
When the referendum effort launched last month, the No Tax on Jobs campaign quickly snagged more than $325,000 in pledges, including $25,000 each from Amazon and Starbucks. As of Friday, the campaign had reported $234,000 in hard contributions, including $80,000 from supermarket groups and $5,000 from Dick’s.
The campaign’s steering committee includes representatives from large companies and its spokesman hails from Monument Policy Group – a bicoastal lobbying firm.
“We don’t have much structure, to be honest,” said John Murray, who once served as deputy chief of staff to former Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, but lives in Seattle.
Tim Ceis, a longtime City Hall lobbyist who served as deputy mayor to Greg Nickels, was “instrumental” in putting the effort together, Murray said.
There were more suits than overalls at a Downtown Seattle Association happy hour promoting the referendum push. Leaving the event, Seattle Hospitality Group founder and chairman Howard Wright III said companies are being “penalized for providing jobs.”
“This is about more than the head tax. This is about sending a message to the City Council,” said Wright, who has personally contributed $25,000 to the campaign.
But ordinary people also are playing a role. More than 2,000 have volunteered, said coordinator Ali Lee, who helped Democratic state Sen. Bob Hasegawa run for mayor last year.
Some worry about the tax causing stores to raise prices, and they say they want to know more about how council members plan to use the revenue. A spending plan approved by the council calls for more than half to be spent on rent-restricted housing.
Rosete, who collected signatures at Dick’s in Wallingford, said learning that locally owned Asian supermarket Uwajimaya would be taxed set him against the measure.
“Seattle has plenty of money, but we’re spending a lot of it on overhead and on programs that aren’t helping,” said Elisabeth James, a volunteer from Ballard who spent an afternoon collecting signatures along the jogging path at Green Lake.
John Holm, who stopped to talk with James and sign the petition, would like to see the city prioritize needy families over “people who want to live on the street,” he said.
“I’m highly sympathetic to people out of work with kids,” said Holm, also a Ballard resident. “Not those people in tents, crapping on my street, dropping needles.”
Down the path at Green Lake, another petitioner worked his own table, pushing ballot measures to cut car-tab taxes and ban grocery taxes alongside the head-tax referendum. In town from Spokane to earn money, he declined to give his name.
Signature cancellation site
Mansong Sanneh signed in South Lake Union after seeing a “No Tax on Jobs” placard. Unfamiliar with the issue and rushing to a bus, he agreed with the slogan and didn’t have time to delve into the details.
“No tax on jobs – I’m down with that,” the social worker said.
Scrambling to reach voters like Sanneh, pro-tax activists with Socialist Alternative and Bring Seattle Home have deployed to locations throughout the city, hovering near the referendum’s signature collectors and making sure people hear both sides.
Powered by health-care-employee unions, Bring Seattle Home has a website where voters can cancel their petition signatures and report misleading statements by signature gatherers. Socialist Alternative is Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s party.
Some voters have made up their minds. “I was born and raised in Seattle, and it’s gentrified so much. I can see a direct correlation between that and the big businesses,” said Caela Bailey, who declined to sign the petition in Columbia City.
But many are still undecided.
“Educating voters is absolutely vital . in a world with so much misinformation,” said volunteer coordinator Matthew Lang, who describes the referendum as “an initiative run by big business that will hurt some of the most vulnerable people in our city.”
As commuters streamed in and out of a light-rail station on Capitol Hill, the activists handed out fliers and fielded questions. Many passers-by were in a hurry.
“Do you want to tax Amazon and build affordable housing?” Dan Kavanaugh shouted to a crowd. “Yes, but I gotta get home first,” a woman hollered back.
For Bring Seattle Home volunteer De Hunter, the debate is very personal – because she once worked for Amazon and is now homeless, living in a tiny-house village.
Hunter said she senses a disconnect between people without homes and the middle-class and upper-class people she sees signing the referendum petition.
“They don’t have to worry about where they’re going to the bathroom, where they’re going to eat,” Hunter said. “There are so many things that people take for granted.”
Amazon is expected to owe more than $10 million under the head tax next year, and Hunter thinks a company run by super-billionaire Jeff Bezos can afford that.
“To turn his back on the city that made him rich, with a crisis as large as it is, is shameful,” she said.
With the struggle heating up, the campaigns have accused each other of dirty tricks and reported shouting and harassment. Daryl Manassa, who sells newspapers for the Real Change Homeless Empowerment Project outside a Rainier Avenue South supermarket, said a paid signature collector hassled him and his customers recently.
There were no such problems at the Columbia City farmers market, but Bring Seattle Home volunteer Sue Hodes was ready to vent about her experiences elsewhere.
She says the head tax makes sense because Seattle’s homelessness crisis has been partly caused by companies like Amazon driving up rents and home prices.
“The people signing these . I never can quite figure out where they think all this has come from,” Hodes said, frustration etched on her face. “I think they blame it all on the City Council.”