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Why Pierce County Seems So Eager To Attract Jobs From Seattle

Will James
Pierce County leaders gathered in a Centeris data center in Puyallup for a news conference on May 22, 2018

Leaders of Pierce County and nine of its cities lined up inside a cavernous data center Tuesday and came just short of making a direct appeal for companies to flee Seattle's taxes for the South Sound. 

"We want to be loud and clear that Pierce County not only values and welcomes and encourages family-wage jobs," said Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier, "but that we see business as an important part of making Pierce County and all of our cities vibrant communities." 

Dammeier, a Republican, did not mention Seattle by name. But his intentions couldn't have been clearer. He and most of the city officials present pledged to pass a tax incentive that is a mirror image of Seattle's new "head tax" on companies. 

Whereas Seattle leaders moved last week to charge the city's largest companies a tax of $275 per employee, Pierce County officials are pitching a tax break of $275 per "family-wage" job for companies that relocate there. "Family-wage" is defined as jobs that pay more than $65,000 a year. 

It was a message aimed at companies angered or shaken by Seattle's tax vote, and some of the heated rhetoric that preceded it: the South Sound offers a friendlier political environment for business.

If South Sound leaders seem eager to attract jobs, it's partially out of fear. Dammeier, shortly after taking office last year, said one of his main objectives was ensuring his county does not turn into a "bedroom community" for Seattle — a place where people rent or buy affordable homes, then brave grueling commutes north for work. 

Pierce County's population is surging, but nearly half of residents who have jobs must commute outside the county's borders. Dammeier repeated his concerns about the trend this week.

"They're not able to be at home with their families," he said. "They're not able to coach little league, or to be there for a ride in the park with their kids."

The solution officials have settled on is promoting the county's affordability and making loud, ambitious plays for employers. But the latest tax incentive plan is already drawing skeptecism.

"Coupon codes are not an economic development strategy," the labor-backed group Working Washington, which supported Seattle's "head tax" proposal, said on Twitter. 

Pierce County's proposal comes after the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber of Commerce released a 30-second ad aimed at companies. "No head tax here," the ad declared, in all caps. "You'll like Tacoma."

Tacoma officials are not joining the effort to pass the new tax incentive. Mayor Victoria Woodards appeared at the news conference to promote the tax breaks her city already offers, which she said could amount to $1,500 per qualifying job. 

"I will continue to pursue cooperative and collaborative strategies with other cities and counties throughout the area to ensure that the Puget Sound region remains a desirable place to start or grow a business," she said. 

Pierce County's political environment has for years leaned more business-friendly than King County's or Seattle's. Pierce County's government, though 30 miles from downtown Seattle, is dominated by Republicans.

Tacoma's last mayor, Marilyn Strickland, was a Democrat known for traveling the world to court businesses willing to invest in her city. She now runs the Seattle Metropolitican Chamber of Commerce, and led the business community's resistance to Seattle's "head tax." 

The Seattle tax is expected to raise $45 to $50 million a year to fight homelessness, largely by funding the construction of affordable housing. 

Pierce County has its own growing struggles with rising housing prices and homelessness. The latest "point-in-time" survey identified 750 people who were living outdoors. 

Will James reports and produces special projects, including podcasts and series, for KNKX. He created and hosted the Outsiders podcast, chronicling homelessness in Olympia for more than a year, in partnership with The Seattle Times.
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