It was an uprising of fed-up citizens, not Amazon strong-arming City Hall. Now it’s time to keep up the pressure.
A remarkable surge of civic engagement killed Seattle’s harmful job tax and put City Hall on notice that voters expect better outcomes.
Residents of Seattle and other communities should keep the pressure on local and state representatives. They must demand more progress, not just more spending, to end the epidemic of homelessness.
Facing this groundswell of demand for accountability, the City Council hastily repealed its $275 per head tax Tuesday. Don’t be fooled by council cronies trying to spin this outcome, squash the nascent resistance and maintain their grip.
Homelessness is a hard problem needing cooperation between governments, businesses and residents, not divisive class-warfare and finger-pointing by tax proponents.
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Here are 10 take-aways:
1. The repeal is an opportunity, not a tragedy.
Seattle can now show whether homeless program reforms and accountability measures taking effect this year work as promised, without being muddied by midyear policy changes.
Governments are under more pressure to show major progress before seeking more revenue.
2. No, this wasn’t Amazon’s doing. Seattle imposed the tax despite the company’s threat to create fewer jobs in the city.
Rather, the sleeping dragon that awoke was Seattle’s predominantly Democratic and progressive middle class. Fed up with slow progress on homelessness and fiscal irresponsibility, the populace turned out by the thousands to petition for a referendum. The message for Mayor Jenny Durkan and the council was they’d gone too far and weren’t trusted to wisely use additional funds. The council mooted the referendum with its repeal but still has much work to do restoring faith.
3. The city must be firm with homeless-service providers. They promised to do the work for a certain price under newly bid contracts. But the council still earmarked millions from the head-tax to boost their pay.
4. The powerhouse calling shots at City Hall is the Service Employees International Union.
The SEIU and allied activist groups have long tried to get cities to pass a “progressive” tax, to help advance such policy statewide. The union did not respond to a call for comment.
Seattle’s compliant council tried three times to oblige. First was an income tax rejected in court, then a failed head tax last year. Rebranded as a tax on Amazon for homelessness, the head tax passed 9-0.
5. These underlying politics shed light on the council’s abrupt flip-flop Tuesday: It appears to have followed the SEIU, which apparently abandoned ship after polls and petitions suggested the pro-tax campaign it was funding would lose.
6. The council must respect open-meeting rules. It failed to provide adequate notice of Tuesday’s meeting. Worse, it agreed to a repeal in private, instead of publicly deliberating. This has become an unacceptable bad habit; remember, the tax was presented for approval May 14 as a done deal, following another weekend of secret haggling.
7. Homeless people are pawns in this larger game. They should benefit from the renewed push for regional solutions Durkan called for after the repeal.
8. Seattle’s still spending extraordinary amounts on homelessness.
Discretionary human-services spending grew 28 percent, to $104 million, since 2016. Spending growth is enabled by surging revenue from business and property taxes. Even without a head tax, Seattle expects revenue from business taxes and licenses in 2020 to be up $47 million, or 21 percent, from 2017.
9. Seattle taxpayers, including businesses, are compassionate and generous about supporting those who are homeless.
What’s needed is a better return on that spending. Seattle and King County are spending $200 million yearly. Yet 52 percent of the regional homeless population of 12,112 was unsheltered, per January’s point-in-time count.
10. Better coordination is needed. A 2017 California state audit identified successful regional approaches in New York and Massachusetts, where homeless response is led by specific entities. Also called out was collaboration by California associations of cities and counties, which recognize that no single city or county has resources to solve homelessness on its own.
Washington needs similar state-level leadership. That’s the only way to tackle what’s really a state crisis, exacerbated by unforgivable state shortcomings in mental-health care.
An effective statewide response might also prevent Seattle’s council from causing further harm to regional prosperity with ideological attacks on job creators and the business climate that jeopardize the entire state’s economic health.