Tuesday, August 9, 2022
Aug. 9, 2022

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Westneat: Welcome to tech boom economy

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The forecast given to the assembled council members was grim: an ongoing budget deficit, stretching as far as the charts were wide. “Any remaining choices we have will be very difficult,” a finance analyst warned. “There are no easy answers. How do we bring back a balanced budget?”

Said one council member: “We’re having a budget gap when we’re in the midst of substantial growth … I don’t think we’ve ever been in that position before.”

Seattle? Sure sounds like the growing pains the region’s tech growth center went through during the past decade.

But no, this was from a Bellevue council meeting this spring. It turns out the Eastside city that’s supposed to be everything Seattle is not — staid, business-focused, competent — is having exactly the same problems with its tech-fueled boom as Seattle did.

“We have this wonderful urbanization and growth that’s occurring in the city, and that will require more new and enhanced services,” said Toni Call, Bellevue’s finance director, describing how a business boom could leave Bellevue staring at red ink into the future.

Welcome to the tech boom economy, Bellevue. As Seattle has discovered, it can both make and break you.

It brings fabulous wealth. At the same time, it drives up housing costs, widens inequality and strains city amenities. Because we have no corporate profits tax or income tax, all that wealth largely skates free of taxation. This hamstrings a city’s ability to respond to the growth.

Despite all those cranes on Bellevue’s skyline, the city is looking at annual deficits of up to $30 million in future years. For a city with a yearly budget of around $250 million, that’s a lot — enough that the famously tax-averse city is talking about possibly raising them.

Seattle is so often compared unfavorably to Bellevue. We’re the wild anarchists to Bellevue’s rule-followers, the socialist spendthrifts to Bellevue’s corporate cost-cutters. So I about fell out of my chair with what happened next at the Bellevue budget hearing.

“Amazon is coming,” said council member Conrad Lee, “along with other major corporations. And they are doing well — very well. They are — I don’t want to use the word ‘profiting from us.’ But they are a part of our city, that is providing them with their ability to grow. And when they do, they cannot just take the profit and pocket it. They have to participate in helping the city’s growth — in all ways, including our financial situation.”

In other words: Tax Amazon!

What a turn of events. Lee is a Republican who has been a fixture at Bellevue City Hall since the ’90s. Now after only a few years of Amazon’s expansion in his city, he’s channeling Seattle socialist Kshama Sawant.

OK, he’s not shouting it through a bullhorn like she does. But it’s the same gist: We aren’t your company town, Amazon.

This light bulb has turned on with Bellevue officials after Amazon grew to 10,000 in the city. It took Seattle nearly 50,000 employees before we boiled over.

I don’t know if Bellevue will tax Amazon — it’s just talk for now. But it’s history-repeating-itself kind of talk. It reveals that there’s something fundamentally out of whack with how we deal with tech growth and its wealth.

It’s no longer just crazy Seattle saying it.

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