Month: February 1998

Weapon of Mass Construction

They lied. Again. Paul Allen’s hand-picked Public Stadium Authority has drafted an Environmental Impact Statement on the Seahawks playpen that says it will bring in extra revenue of $3.9 million for the Year 2003 for the city of Seattle, and that therefore taxpayers should use that revenue to pay some of Paul’s operating costs. Problem is, Allen’s revenue numbers are cooked. Try $600,000 a year… maybe. And Allen’s manipulations have included trying to limit public scrutiny of his dubious projections and a request for still more public subsidies.

First of all, the Stadium Authority took out ads in local newspapers publicizing public hearings on the EIS scheduled for Feb. 10th and 12th. The ads said that a copy of the EIS would be available at all branch libraries in Seattle during the month of February for the public to review in preparation for the hearings. As of Feb. 13th, however, none of the branch libraries had received a copy of the EIS–it was available only at the downtown library. The EIS is a full 3″ thick, and would take several days for anyone to read and analyze. Clearly the “Public” Stadium Authority isn’t interested in letting the public get their hands on this document.

There’s a good reason for that. In the EIS, the Stadium Authority does some shameless number-juggling to make the stadium look profitable. If we take their figures at face value–a shaky position to begin with–a close reading of the EIS reveals some outright lies and coverups. For example, the overall estimate of $3.9 million in revenue for 2003 includes projected income for the Mariners’ ballpark to the tune of $2.2 million. Good try, fellas, but we’re not that stupid! Subtracting that bit of bullshit brings the number down to $1.7 million, which must be further reduced because the Stadium Authority added in a current Admissions Tax that won’t exist by 2003. You’d think, with all Paul’s money, he could find more talented and subtle accountants to lie for him. Then again, being worth $15 billion means you don’t need to be subtle.

Subtracting the bogus Admissions Tax brings the figure down to $600,000. But even that puny figure is predicated on stupid assumptions about “what might happen.” This number assumes that the Seahawks will draw 99% attendance to every game during the season. If there are enough Microsoft millionaires and Boeing engineers moronic enough to spend their 401(k) allowances on prime seats to watch the Seahawks get their ten annual ass whippings, this assertion may actually be true! However, the Seahawks only pulled in 87% attendance this past season, with no evidence that the team is actually improving its performance. If the new stadium operates at 87% capacity, we can subtract another $300,000 in sale tax revenues from the projected income.

Now we’re down to $300,000. Let’s see. That number assumes that Seattle will have a professional soccer franchise by 2003. Anyone remember our last stab at a professional soccer franchise? The Seattle Sounders was a decent team that actually played well, yet they went down the tubes for lack of interest and unprofitability–as did their league, as has virtually every pro soccer league in the U.S. This new league’s attendance, in year 2 (1997), was down sharply. Year 2003 will undoubtedly come and go without a professional soccer team in Seattle, so we can subtract another $300,000 from sales tax revenues, thereby bringing the stadium benefit down to absolute zero, by the Public Stadium Authority’s own rosy calculations.

Now some diehard football fans will point out that it’s just fine if the Seahawks stadium breaks even. Of course, they’re wrong: the Environmental Impact Statement is supposed to assess the impact on the community of increased traffic congestion, crowds, lack of parking, maniacs stabbing ex-fire chiefs, etc. In this case, the EIS is clearly being used as a weapon of mass construction. Stadium backers have always claimed that the stadium will generate excess sales tax revenue to pay for the extra cops needed to direct traffic, fire crews to handle emergencies, and additional bus service. A close reading of the Public Stadium Authority’s bogus EIS proves that this is just not true. They lied. Again.

The information for this piece was obtained from the office of city council member Nick Licata, which analyzed the EIS and is pushing for an extension to the public comment period. Special thanks to Bruce Miller for noticing that the EIS was available only at the downtown Seattle Public Library.

 

Merger Madness, Part II

Our local media continues to fret over the Justice Department’s toothless investigation of Microsoft, which (as we predicted) is leading not to the break-up of Microsoft, but to its continued drive to dominate the browser market and drive Netscape out of business. Meanwhile, another major corporation has been giving mergers a bad name, and may actually be dismantled by federal regulators: Union Pacific.

Last year we reported on the Union Pacific/Southern Pacific railroad merger and the problems it created all over the southern United States. Now its customers and competitors are calling for the merger to be reversed. The Surface Transportation Board, which monitors mergers and customer service issues in the railroad industry, is currently monitoring the new conglomerate, and will continue through 2001, during which time it can order the new company to be broken up into smaller entities. To avoid that outcome, UP will probably turn to–yes, you guessed it– taxpayer funds to help bail it out.

Since acquiring Southern Pacific Rail Corp., Union Pacific has been the center of a nationwide shipping crisis that has left goods stranded in warehouses, on docks, and on farms all over the southern United States. Caused by a combination of bad management decisions, problems integrating the two companies’ equipment, safety problems, labor strife, and slow-downs due to bad weather, the crisis has cost the U.S. economy an estimated $2 billion.

One of the main causes of the shipping tie-ups is the way Union Pacific treats its workers. Workers are being asked to put in overtime to clear backups along its rail lines, but Union Pacific refuses to pay them overtime rates. For example, during the 1997 Thanksgiving holiday, UP paid its workers a one-time $100-a-day bonus to work on the holiday weekend. However, when Christmas arrived, UP refused to pay the bonus, saying that it didn’t want to “set a precedent.” Yet the company still expresses astonishment that over 40% of its workers are refusing to work mandatory overtime.

Safety issues have also been a major cause of the slow-down, too. Early last year, to catch up on its growing backlog of orders, UP “sped up” the system by scheduling more rail cars and more frequent runs on each line. After a series of fatal train wrecks last year, the Federal Railroad Administration (which monitors safety on rail lines) assigned 80 inspectors to review UP’s system. So far, FRA inspectors have forced UP to remove a large number of locomotives and rail cars from its tracks.

In the face of these problems, UP is turning to another solution to save itself from being split up: a push to build more rail lines, overpasses, and switching hubs. And like most large corporations, UP will be turning to state and local governments for funding to pay for upgrades in infrastructure.

For an example on how to draft these deals, UP need look no further than Seattle. Northern Pacific railroad is brokering a multi-million dollar deal with the Port of Seattle and King County to finance new overpasses (with taxpayer funds), so it can increase its rail traffic in and out of the port. Local business leaders, port commissioners, and the King County Council have all given uncritical support to this deal, in the name of “growth,” conveniently forgetting that “growth” is also responsible for a whole host of other ills that they need to deal with. Local politicians love to make sketchy promises to their constituents at election time about handling growth problems, but they quickly forget all about it, once a nifty scheme comes along that will enrich their friends and line their own pockets.

Let’s not forget that the Port of Seattle just recently complained about not having enough money to fund all of its “dream” projects: building a third runway at SeaTac, remodeling the airport’s facilities, finishing the port’s new convention center (yes, another convention center!) across from the Bell Street Pier, and upgrading container-loading equipment at a number of different piers. When a new construction project comes along, our port commissioners just can’t say no. And if they did, they would lose the support of their main constituency– Burlington Northern, a host of other transportation companies, and local construction firms.

The whole UP merger mess is a reminder to us of the high cost of unregulated markets and competition. The fact that UP will now demand taxpayer assistance to stay alive–and that Northern Pacific now wants money from us to “stay competitive”–is a reminder that “free markets” don’t actually exist (and can’t exist in the real world). They also don’t work for the benefit of most people in society, only for those with money, power, and influence.

 

The Criminal Element

Seattle is being run by criminals–or so the city Ethics and Elections Commission claims. Of course we’ve always suspected this was true, but the details are juicy, and the question of what to do about it is an important one, because if we let the criminal element get away with it, the pillaging of public coffers will never end. And it has to stop somewhere, sometime.

What I’m referring to, of course, is the report released last week by the Ethics and Elections Commission on the $73 million dollar give-away to Pine Street Development for the Nordstrom parking garage currently under construction at Sixth and Pine. The facility itself will only cost an estimated $50 million to build, so $23 million of that money is an outright gift to Pine Street Development. The city council and members of the Rice administration broke not just city laws, but also state and federal laws in setting up and approving this deal, particularly the federal Constitutional ban against gifts to private businesses. We’re not talking about whether or not it was a wise business decision for the mayor’s office or the city council to approve this scam–the facts are the facts. The city council and the mayor’s office broke the law, and should be held accountable for it.

It’s interesting to note that damage control began the day after the report was issued. City Attorney Mark Sidran, whose office advised the city council on the legalities of the deal, has denied that there was any wrongdoing involved, thereby showing either extreme incompetence, or a frightening propensity to interpret and manipulate the law to benefit himself and the business community that supported his election to office. His department advised the city council that it was okay not to hold public hearings on the deal, which is against state law.

The four current city council members who were in office at the time the project was approved (1995-96) are Sue Donaldson, Martha Choe, Jan Drago, and Margaret Pageler. Donaldson, in particular, has been vocal in defending the secretive way that the council reviewed and hastily approved the project. If it hadn’t been done immediately, it wouldn’t have been done at all, she reasons; and just look at all the development along Pine Street, which was a direct result of Nordstrom deciding to stay in downtown Seattle (which they wouldn’t have done if we didn’t give them a free parking garage).

That’s lame. Sorry, Sue, but many of us think it’s better that taxpayers not pay for Nordstrom’s parking garage. And the garage has nothing at all to do with the butt-ugly Nike temple, gaudy Gameworks bordello, and 20-screen cinema complex (modeled after Wall Street’s “Big Board” stock listings) that opened up down the street. These were all under construction before the garage deal was clinched. Let’s talk about what really might have been if these soulless playpens had decided not to move into downtown. Those of us who live in the neighborhood might have been pleased to see even half of that $73 million put into turning the Frederick & Nelson building into low-income housing or a spacious, long-term, downtown library–or seeing the long-needed hygiene center finally get the space it deserves and desperately needs.

Critics who are following the ins and outs of the garage scandal are looking for ways to keep this type of crime from happening again. One option is to demand the resignation of council members Donaldson, Drago, Choe, and Pageler–and the resignation of Mark Sidran, too. At least one current council member, Nick Licata, has suggested that the city back out of the deal altogether and refuse to pay Pine Street Developers the $73 million.

Another option that should be pursued is the filing of criminal charges against John Finke and the organization he works for, the National Development Council, a nonprofit consulting firm that contracted with the city to arrange financing for the garage deal. NDC’s contract with the city forbade it from having any financial interest in the deal, yet the firm stands to make half million dollars on the garage deal. Here’s how: while NDC was working for the city in 1996, an NDC subsidiary signed a separate contract with Pine Street Development to assume ownership of the garage while under construction. After completion of the garage, NDC will turn the profits (that extra $23 million) over to Pine Street Development, who will then reward NDC a total of $500,000 for their efforts in brokering the deal. The city was ripped off, pure and simple, and we should go after the thieves now, before they skip town and find another lucrative project to exploit somewhere else.

Furthermore, Pine Street Development should be barred from working on city contracts, and the lawyers from Preston Gates & Ellis that represented several different parties in the scheme (a clear conflict of interest) should be heavily fined or disbarred. Furthermore, it’s high time Nordstrom paid its own way in this town (just like you and I have to). If they can’t deal with it, they can move to the suburbs. Enough is enough.

 

Falling into Potholes

If you want to fix potholes, you tax the people who use the roads most, right? Commercial haulers, delivery services, and people who commute long distances everyday should be responsible for the upkeep of transportation infrastructure. In which case a gas tax makes perfect sense. It would tax those who drive the most (or drive the most fuel-inefficient vehicles) and, if indexed to inflation, it would provide a steady, long-term source of revenue. It would also be a strong incentive for people to walk, ride bicycles, carpool, or take the bus, instead of driving everywhere.

But any mention of a new tax makes reactionary politicians in Olympia cringe. Knee-jerk rhetoric flies back and forth about “no new taxes,” and eventually the yahoos come up with stupid solutions that only make the problem worse. Witness the new transportation plan that’s recently passed the House.

This plan would raise $2.4 billion over five years through bond issues that would divert money from the general fund. It’s a credit card approach. It’s also limited to only five years of repairs, while the bond issues for the project will continue over a 25 year time span. How’s that for saddling future generations with onerous debt?

Furthermore, a detail buried within the bill would earmark money from the state surplus to pay for “criminal justice.” How this applies to transportation is unclear. Obviously, politicians from both parties are using this legislative session to give out bonuses to their favorite campaign contributors in preparation for the elections in November. As usual, it’s obvious whose interest our legislators serve: the bond market, investors, the criminal justice industry, etc.

Fear and Loathing in Olympia

Conservative politicians always say they’re against government intervention in people’s personal lives. So the hypocrisy of a Republican-sponsored law to ban same-sex marriages is obvious, as the state legislature is set to pass another bill that will do just that. The anti-domestic partnership bill, HB2586 (in the House) and SB 5400 (in the Senate), will eliminate benefits for all state employees in same-sex relationships and, by extension, threaten domestic partner benefits programs in Seattle, Olympia, Tumwater, King County, and even non-profits and businesses that receive state funds.

Much of the conservative rationale for this bill is couched in terms of so-called “concern” for teenagers and young adults–students in public schools and universities. Yet the way in which the bill was presented showed absolute contempt for youth and young people’s abilities to decide right from wrong on their own. When dozens of university students traveled to Olympia to testify against the bill at a public hearing, legislators refused to allow them to testify, and set aside only five minutes for public testimony.

Last year, the legislature approved a similar bill that Gov. Gary Locke vetoed. But this year, Republicans are marshaling support to attach a referendum clause to the bill that would put the measure on the November ballot in the event of a veto. And as we saw with the defeat of last year’s Initiative 677 (to ban job discrimination based on sexual orientation), the Washington state electorate is predominantly anti-gay. Our conservative politicians know this, are counting on it, and are using it to promote their own social agenda, instead of dealing with more important issues, like funding public education, revising state housing regulations, appropriating funds for food banks and school lunch programs, or expanding the state health care plan (which is getting 4–5,000 new families added to the waiting list every month).

Worse yet, so-called “moderate” Democrats want to see the bill become law without a public vote. Democrats are joining with the Republican majority in both houses to gather a two-thirds majority to override Locke’s veto, and pass the bill directly into law. Yes, that’s right. Over 120 Democrats are coming up for reelection in November, and none of them want to defend the same-sex marriage bill during their election campaigns. They reason that it’s better that the bill pass into law now, so the public can forget about it by the time November rolls around. Such cynicism and slimy hypocrisy are truly shocking. Remember when Bill Clinton signed a federal gay marriage ban last year? We truly live in a one-party state.

Currently the state of Washington doesn’t recognize same-sex marriage, but it doesn’t ban it, either. Two pending court rulings–one in the state of Hawaii and the other in Vermont- -could legalize it in those states, thereby giving gay couples from coast-to-coast the chance to obtain a legal marriage certificate … and give them a legal basis for demanding spousal benefits in other states. Our reactionary state legislature is on the warpath to end this by making these unions illegal in the state of Washington. In the meantime, gay rights organizations are lobbying to keep the bill from gaining a two-thirds majority in the state legislature and passing directly into law. But the alternative isn’t attractive either: after fighting a losing battle over I-677, gay rights groups will have to gear up for another expensive electoral battle with an unsure outcome.

Without a doubt, gay couples deserve the right to form legal domestic partnerships and have the same benefits under law that heterosexual folks take for granted. To join in the campaign against the anti-domestic partnership bill (HB2586), contact Equality Washington at 206-323-5191 or the Legal Marriage Alliance of Washington at 206-689-6280. Also, call the Legislative Hotline at 1-800-562-6000 and let your representative know what you think about this intrusive, discriminatory bill.

 

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