Seattle City Council To Decide Monday On Jobs Tax

May 14, 2018
Originally published on May 14, 2018 11:10 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The city of Seattle faces a big decision today - whether or not to go ahead with a $75 million tax on jobs. City Council members want the money for affordable housing and to address homelessness. But corporations, including Amazon and even the mayor, are warning the City Council not to move forward with this tax. From member station KUOW in Seattle, Carolyn Adolph reports.

CAROLYN ADOLPH, BYLINE: A thousand people move to Seattle every week, many for tech jobs. That's driven the cost of housing up. And homelessness has exploded. Seattle has 400 homeless encampments in the city at any time.

MIKE O'BRIEN: We have to build a lot more affordable housing, and that takes money.

ADOLPH: Mike O'Brien is a City Council member. At community meetings, he's supported a proposed $75 million tax on big employers in Seattle. That's about $500 per worker per year. But more than a hundred company executives signed a letter saying the tax would punish them for creating jobs. And what's blown things up here is the threat to jobs. While the tax is in play, Amazon has put the brakes on plans for 7,000 jobs. Construction workers took that as a threat to their livelihoods since they're the ones who are building the offices.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) No head tax, no head tax.

ADOLPH: City Council member Kshama Sawant, who supports the head tax, spoke to them as they protested.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADOLPH: As you know, I'm also a rank-and-file member of...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Yelling) No head tax.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) No head tax.

ADOLPH: Last year, Amazon started its search for a place to build its second headquarters, though not in Seattle. Now 20 places are on the company's short list. They're cutting taxes to lure Amazon, while Seattle considers taxing the company more. A week and a half ago, a televised City Council question-and-answer session turned into a free-for-all for the mic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Open mic, open mic, open mic.

ADOLPH: A man who identified himself as a business owner said the city is going to chase more than Amazon away.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: They can't be the only company that's thinking about leaving. In the small business community, that's pretty much the talk - get the hell out of Seattle. It's way too expensive.

ADOLPH: On Friday, City Council members rejected a proposal to double the head tax to raise more money for housing. They also rejected the mayor's proposal to cut the tax in half. Other cities have also struggled with taxing employers. Chicago ditched its head tax several years ago with Mayor Rahm Emanuel calling it a job killer. Philadelphia has a tax on wages that is the foundation of the city's budget. Some who've studied it believe it has driven jobs away. But now Philadelphia is shortlisted for Amazon's second headquarters. And with Amazon's future growth headed elsewhere, the big fear in Seattle is that a head tax could kill jobs. At Friday's City Council meeting, resident Trevor Robinson (ph) said it could all be true.

TREVOR ROBINSON: For those who are afraid that this tax would result in losing your jobs, your fear is absolutely valid. And when Amazon has that much power over you, we have a very serious systemic problem.

ADOLPH: Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has threatened to veto the head tax if City Council approves it. For NPR News, I'm Carolyn Adolph in Seattle.

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