Business tax for affordable housing, homeless debated at City Hall

SEATTLE — Signs that have popped up around Seattle and placards at a City Hall hearing Monday night read, "Tax Amazon to build affordable housing."

But the proposal for a head tax would also affect Merlino Foods because the restaurant distributor grosses more than $20 million per year.

"We're not Amazon," said Merlino Foods' chief financial officer Todd Biesold. "They assume that a company that has gross revenue is rich and can afford to pay this tax."

Biesold said income margins in his business are small.
An annual tax of $500 per worker would come at a time he's already facing rising costs in Seattle.

"We have just under 100 employees so it's about $50,000 a year hit to us," Biesold said. "It's a big hit."

Supporters and opponents of the head tax proposal packed into the council chambers at Seattle City Hall on Monday evening.

The head tax would bring in about $75 million a year.

Seventy-five percent of that would go to building more affordable apartments, such as the one on South Jackson Street, which is operated by the Low Income Housing Institute.

"We have seniors who we literally took off the street. They're here and they're thriving and it works," said executive director Sharon Lee.

Lee said that, to keep up with demand, Seattle should build about 2,000 units a year.

Without the business tax, she said, only 500 will be built.

She pointed to the recent federal tax overhaul and said businesses can afford to pay more.

"All these businesses are getting a big break and then, to have a small local tax that improves homelessness, that improves everybody's lives, makes a lot of sense," Lee said.

Merlino Foods officials said the major federal tax break does not apply to their company, and they might have to leave Seattle, after having been in business there for 118 years.

The City Council could vote on the head tax by mid-May.

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