Amid a city deeply divided on head tax, mayor says Seattle can't tax itself out of homelessness

SEATTLE -- The city's controversial proposal to impose an employee tax on big businesses brought out such a huge crowd for public comment, many couldn't even get into the committee meeting. But the people who did get to speak were deeply passionate.

The public hearing shows there is a deep division within the Seattle community on a proposal to impose a head tax on large companies and use the money to try to ease the homeless crisis.

“Please pass the employee hours tax and please make it as large as possible,” said one supporter.

“What does it profit us if we gain wealth and lose our souls?” said one supporter.

Seferina Hernandez, a homeless woman, told the council that the only way for her to get her children and her life back is to pass the head tax to build more affordable housing.

“Being separate and displaced from our children has been traumatic for all of us,” Hernandez said.

The other side says they care, too, but a large tax on businesses is not the answer.

“I think the answer is not new revenues but better strategies; I think we can use what we already have,” said an opponent.

“We will lose about 1.8 million unique construction hours, of which 360,000 would be worked by apprentices,” one construction man said.

Opponents say companies like Amazon will vote with their feet, hurting small business, too.

“This legislation does zero for fixing a thoroughly broken system. Kshama I’m a small business owner in your district, I’ve been homeless and I voted for you,” Sara Brereton said to councilmember Kshama Sawant.

Sawant -- who has been the loudest supporter of the head tax -- was addressed several times during the hearing.

One woman who says she voted for Sawant angrily yelled at her, saying she didn’t represent her district and calling Sawant a "fraud."

“She seems to be getting paid by the residents of Seattle to throw temper tantrums; we hope you know what you are doing,” said Chris McClain, who is with Iron Workers Local Union 86.

Q13 News wanted to hear from other council members like Bruce Harrell, who has stayed quiet so far on the issue.

Harrell says more negotiations are underway before Monday’s scheduled vote on the proposal, but he wouldn’t reveal if he is for or against the head tax.

“I also don’t think we’ve convinced the public that we are spending the money wisely, as far as homelessness,” Harrell said.

Ava Levine, a woman who struggled her way out of homelessness, says she agrees with that statement.

“When I was in the streets, most of the people I met either had mental health issues or using drugs,” Levine said.

Levine says drug use landed her on the streets as well and when she was given subsidized housing she couldn’t keep it because of her drug habit.

She says unless more resources are diverted toward rehabilitation, no amount of new dollars or affordable units will solve the homeless crisis.

Mayor Jenny Durkan broke her silence on the issue Wednesday, but didn't take a firm position.

“We cannot tax our way out of this problem, we won’t have a big enough population to do it,” Durkan said.

Durkan said the city clearly needs more resources, but she had major concerns with the proposal on the table right now.

It would affect more than 500 companies costing businesses $500 per employee.

“Right now the reality is if Amazon's building stays paused (the company has halted construction on a new building pending the City Council's vote on the employee tax), we could lose hundreds of jobs just with carpenters and almost $90 million in salaries just to them. We don’t want to be a city where working people can’t have jobs,” Durkan said.

When Q13 News asked her if she would veto the measure if it passes, Durkan said:

“I know you want a Twitter response -- yes or no -- digital response, the president operates that way, I don’t. I am working with people in good faith, in council chambers and across the spectrum to see if we can find a way forward together."

A committee votes on the measure on Friday. They need 5 out of 9 votes to pass and it appears they may have the votes. The full council vote is currently set for Monday.

Durkan also said that she now supports a five-year timeline when it comes to new taxes. Meaning after five years of a new tax going in to effect, she wants a review of how the money is being used -- that way taxes do not go on indefinitely if it's not providing results.