Charity telemarketer plaguing Seattle files for bankruptcy


ACS logoBack in January, I started identifying candidates for possible inclusion on my new list of “America’s Stupidest Charities.” The criteria was pretty basic: charities that called the New To Seattle world headquarters asking for money even though they already were the subject of a critical write-up here. That generally was for spending very little on the stated charitable mission thanks to use of outside paid telemarketers.

I quickly garnered three contenders: American Veterans Support Foundation, a trade name of the National Vietnam Veterans FoundationCancer Support Services; and Community Charity Advancement, doing business as Breast Cancer Support and Research Fund.

Then the hunt went cold. The calls stopped coming in. Was it possible charities and their telemarketers were getting a little smarter about who they do and don’t contact?

Maybe. But I’m starting to think the reason also might be the fact that one of the country’s most notorious charity telemarketers filed for bankruptcy-court protection from what seems to be a growing array of debts, liabilities and overall trouble.

Four weeks ago on March 13, Associated Community Services Inc., of Southfield, Mich., sought refuge in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. It filed papers listing assets of $10 million and liabilities of $21 million. That’s what’s known as being seriously upside-down.

ACS, as the firm is called, was a frequent and repeat visitor to Seattle. Readers of this space might recall some of the company’s, ah, memorable clients (none of which is eligible–yet–for the stupidest charities list, since they haven’t called me since its inauguration). Here’s the quick list: Continue reading

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Seattle quietly becomes clear No. 1 in big-city sales tax


Sales tax signAs the traditional fireworks display burst around the fog-shrouded Space Needle in Seattle three months ago to ring in 2014, something explosive took place two time zones away. Cook County, Ill., lowered its portion of the local sales tax by 0.25%. So the total rate in Chicago fell from 9.5% to 9.25%. That broke a tie and left Seattle’s 9.5% rate all by itself as the nation’s highest among big cities.

As far as I can tell, this was a sub silentio event in Seattle, with no local recognition.  Of course, that’s not surprising. There are some things you just don’t want to brag about being No. 1 in.

Since becoming New To Seattle, I have become quite aware of the stiff local levy. Two years ago in this space I was one of the first in Seattle to note the 9.5% top-sales-tax tie between Seattle and Chicago. That was the result of recent sales tax reductions in Chicago and Los Angeles, which at one point both had 9.75% rates. The rate in the City of Angels fell by a full percentage point and in the Windy City by a quarter-percent.

I learned of the Emerald City’s sole front-runner status only this week when I did some quick research after receiving a mail ballot (the way elections are conducted across most of Washington State). Voters in King County, which includes Seattle, are being asked to raise the collective sales tax by 0.1% to 9.6% mainly to stave off what are described as crippling cuts to area mass transit. Early predictions are that the increase will pass. (In case you wonder, the nation’s highest combined sales tax for cities of any size is the 12.725%–more than one penny out of every eight–that tiny Tuba City, Ariz., levies on unknowing tourists motoring through en route to the Grand Canyon.)

Seattle prides itself as a liberal city in so many ways (especially when it comes to such issues as legalized recreational pot and gay marriage). Why, voters even just elected a socialist to the City Council. But to my thinking it’s tough to square that image with its regressive tax structure, which really sticks it to the poor and disadvantaged. Regressive here means that taxes take a larger percentage from lower-income people than they do from higher-income people. Continue reading

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Seattle’s love-hate relationship with rain


A sign inside a Seattle supermarket

Long-standing sign inside a Seattle supermarket

Here in Seattle we’re finishing up what is the wettest March in the history of city record-keeping. It’s dry and even sunny today. But for the previous 30 days we’ve had 9.44 inches, more than 2½ times the March average of 3.72 inches. And that was after a February with 6.11 inches, nearly double that month’s norm of 3.70 inches, and something like the seventh-wettest February on record.

The way Seattle tries to minimize its rain as a way of attracting visitors is rather amusing. VisitSeattle, a nonprofit marketing group that used to be called Seattle’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, still has this rather defensive language on its web site below a headline reading “Rain or Sun, Seattle Shines”:

It’s been said that Seattleites will exaggerate about how much it rains in order to deter visitors from moving to their enchanting city. In reality, Seattle gets less rain than New York, Miami and dozens of other U.S. cities.

Left unsaid, of course, is the fact that Seattle gets more rain than thousands of other U.S. cities. That may be why the “Seattle Annual Rainfall Comparison Table” on VisitSeattle.org compares Seattle with just five other cities–tellingly, none on the West Coast, like, say, hated rival San Francisco (which, for the record, gets only 20.78 inches annually).

I think it fair to say that VisitSeattle is numerically challenged, at least when it comes to measuring rain. There’s a month-by-month table showing “average monthly maximum rainfall.”  (I have no idea what the word “maximum” means in this context.) By my math, the sum of the 12 entries is 36.194 inches. But the total at the bottom of the table is 36.16 inches–a different number, and one that is less. Moreover, both are more than 1.2 inches less than the 37.4 inches listed on that separate “rainfall comparison” table.

I guess you can take your pick. Continue reading

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Seattle is no stranger to landslides, either


Official City of Seattle landslide map

Official City of Seattle landslide map

The awful landslide tragedy near Oso, about an hour’s drive north of Seattle, is getting the far-flung attention it should. The loss of life is horrendous–25 known to be dead at this writing with as many as 90 still missing and presumed deceased.

But almost as bad is the fact that various government agencies have known for decades this scenic stretch of Washington State along State Highway 530 on the edge of the North Cascades was particularly susceptible to a traumatic landslide off Skaglund Hill. Written reports detailed the danger to a clutch of homes from unusual shifting soil and a meandering Stillaguamish River that cut into the bottom of the face of the hill. Yet officials approved building permits for new housing and did little to warn the residents. Some survivors now say they had no idea of their documented peril.

Why am I, New To Seattle, writing about this? Take a look at this 16-year-old map of Seattle, produced for a municipal agency. Each tiny colored dot represents a documented landslide within the city limits back to 1890.

There are more than 1,500 tiny colored dots.

Continue reading

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Seattle’s newest tourist attraction–which can’t be seen


Above-ground site of stuck below-ground tunneling machine along the Seattle waterfront

Above-ground site of the stuck-below-ground tunneling machine along the Seattle waterfront

In a few months, after the rains end, clouds part and sustained sun finally re-appears, the summer tourism season in Seattle will start percolating. Millions of folks from around the world will become New To Seattle to savor exquisite scenery, food, culture and, maybe, pot (although, thanks to bureaucracy and red tape, none of the legal marijuana stores that Washington State voters authorized in November 2012 has opened yet).

This summer’s collection of tourist attractions will have a temporary addition. Quite an unusual one, too, since it can’t actually be seen.

The world’s largest tunnel boring machine. Stuck dead 60 feet beneath the ground along the waterfront in downtown Seattle. With no reverse gear. Going nowhere before September at the earliest.

The picture here, which I took, is about a clear a view as you’re going to get now unless you’re a mole. It looks like a construction site–which, technically, it is. (That’s Seattle’s 175-foot-high Great Wheel amusement ride in the background.) The location, off Alaskan Way between S. Jackson and S. Main Streets, is but a few blocks from the popular, bar-festooned Pioneer Square area, and the popular, fish-throwing Pike Place Market. However, this corner of Seattle is rather grim and grimy, with homeless folks sleeping under tarps and lots of uncollected litter. It’s not a nice area at night, or during the day, either.

Yet it’s already drawing visitors lured by the specter of a $80 million machine nearly 60 feet wide nicknamed Bertha making scant progress since December 7–appropriately enough, the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, another great debacle.  Strolling recently around this street scene, I saw several sets of casually clad bag-toting pedestrians using cell-phone cameras on Alaskan Way under the Alaskan Way Viaduct aiming in the general direction of the dig. One person appeared to be orienting himself using what looked to me from a distance like a downloaded Seattle Times map showing the exact spot. Continue reading

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Seattle’s incredibly shrinking jaywalking tickets


Seattle Police badgeWho ya gonna believe?

In annual editions of its Seattle Traffic Report, the Seattle Department of Transportation officially stated that a total of 4,479 jaywalking tickets, officially each classified as a pedestrian infraction, were issued in the city during the three years 2009 to 2011. The agency sourced that seemingly high number–a rising average of 1,493 each year, peaking at 1,635 in 2011–to the Seattle Police Department.

But the cops, famous in some quarters–most notably the U.S. Department of Justice–for beating up jaywalkers, officially told me they don’t collect that data at all and have no idea how many jaywalking tickets they issue. They swore only the Seattle Municipal Court compiles those statistics.

And what sayeth that honorable court? For the same three-year period, its records officially showed processing only 1,341 jaywalking tickets–a declining average of 447 per year and less than one-third the total listed in those SDOT-tables-sourced-to-the-SPD. Court records for 2012 and 2013–SDOT stopped published pedestrian infraction stats after 2011–showed even fewer jaywalking tickets, an average of 215 processed each year.

Now, even allowing that different agencies may be using different definitions for jaywalking, it’s pretty hard for me, New To Seattle, to square these numbers. Or, for that matter, to understand how in this City Of Big Data the police don’t have detailed data on exactly what offenses its own officers are detecting. This police department reform stuff in Seattle ain’t going to be easy. Continue reading

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Seattle cops don’t know how many jaywalking tickets they write


Seattle Police badgeThe Seattle Police Department is under all kinds of pressure to clean up the way it treats the citizenry. The feds are after it for brutality, often after jaywalking violations.  City Council members have grilled Harry Bailey, the interim police chief, over decisions to punish errant officers with wrist slaps.

But I’d tell you the department’s problems are a lot more basic than that. For instance, the SPD has absolutely no idea whatsoever from its own records how many traffic tickets are written for specific offenses, especially but hardly limited to jaywalking.

Don’t believe me? Well, I now have that in writing from the department itself.

“The Seattle Police Department does not currently compile the type of records you have requested,” the agency’s Public Disclosure Unit said in an email to me yesterday. The note was in the name of Bailey and the person in the unit who actually wrote and sent it. In a follow-up note this morning, she wrote, “We could find out how many citations were issued by SPD … but we do not keep stats as to how many were issued for each type of violation.” I’m going to spare some professional embarrassment and not identify her here.

As someone who remains New To Seattle, I am still trying to figure out the way city government works. My quest to ascertain some rather elementary information has not been very fruitful, but it certainly has given me insight into the way the wheels grind here. Continue reading

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Usual suspects around Seattle unusually rich, as usual


Forbes logoForbes is out today with with its new semi-annual list of billionaires. The March list consists of billionaires around the world–all 1,645 of them this time around–while the September list is just the richest 400 billionaires in the U.S. Yes, it’s been possible for a few years to be a American billionaire but not on the U.S.-only list. As it happens, one even lives in Seattle.

Quickly scanning the new list, it appears that Western Washington in general has the same 10 swells that it had six months ago. You’ll undoubtedly be happy to know that none is poorer than last year, although for a few, their increase in net worth hasn’t kept up with stock market performance.

Here’s the rundown:

Bill Gates, age 58, No. 1 in the entire world (back on top for the first time in four years). $76 billion, up from $72 billion last fall.

Jeff Bezos, age 50, No. 18. $32 billion, up a robust 18% from six months ago.

Steve Ballmer, age 57, No. 36 (tied with one other). $19.3 billion, up from $18 billion.

Paul Allen, age 61, No. 56. $15.9 billion, up just $100 million despite his team’s winning of the Super Bowl.

James Jannard,  age 64. No. 520 (tied with 30 others). $3.1 billion, up $100 million. He made his fortune with Oakley sunglasses and lives in the San Juan Islands.

Howard Schultz, age 60. No. 828 (tied with 39 others). $2.1 billion, a $100 million increase over last year.

Craig McCaw, age 64. No. 988  (tied with 47 others). $1.8 billion, unchanged.

Anne Gittinger, age 78. No. 1270 (tied with 13 others). $1.35 billion, up $50 million. Younger sibling of Bruce Nordstrom.

Bruce Nordstrom, age 80. No 1284 (tied with 72  others). $1.3 billion, unchanged. Older sibling of Anne Gittinger.

Gabe Newell, age 51. No. 1372 (tied with 69  others). $1.2 billion, up $100 million from last year. Video game developer. He was one of those unfortunately “poor” billionaires who made last March’s world-wide list but missed the cut-off on for last fall’s U.S.-only list. Even for those not New To Seattle, life can be so unfair.

Follow William P. Barrett’s work on Twitter by clicking here.

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Fresh proof of ‘Seattle Freeze’ and ‘Seattle Nice’


CenturyLink Field in Seattle (via Wikipedia)

CenturyLink Field in Seattle (via Wikipedia)

From time to time in this space I have written of my belief in the existence of the “Seattle Freeze,” as well as the related passive-aggressive condition known as “Seattle Nice.” The former is the notion that Seattleites are not especially hospitable to newcomers or those from out of town. The topic has been debated for so long it now has its own Wikipedia entry. The latter is the perception that Seattleites tend to hide disagreements and even anger with others they encounter behind a deceptively false show of friendliness that often gets in the way of conflict resolution.

To me, still New To Seattle, it is abundantly clear these phenomenons exist. Re Seattle Freeze, most newcomers I encounter–say, people who have been in Seattle five years or less–agree with me. Most folks I discuss this with who have been here longer than that do not (but see the first comment posted below). Re Seattle Nice, a surprising number of people I ask don’t understand that the concept connotes a dark psychological undertone.

Allow me to present two pieces of evidence to support my view, one high-brow, the other a little lower. Continue reading

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The most prescient billboard in Seattle


Eddie Bauer billboard in Seattle

Eddie Bauer billboard in Seattle

Take a look at this picture I just shot. The billboard sits in Seattle’s population-free Interbay section on 15th Avenue W at the eastern foot of the Magnolia Bridge. Depicting a dude going off a snow-covered mountain wearing Eddie Bauer garb, it proclaims,”EDDIE.SET.GO.”

I’ll say.

It was announced yesterday that Bauer, founded in Seattle in 1920 and one of the area’s oldest companies, is in a deal to sell itself for $825 million to Jos. A. Bank Clothiers. Owned by a private equity firm, Bauer, with 370 outlets selling outdoor wear and accessories, has an estimated 500 employees at its headquarters in suburban Bellevue. Publicly listed Bank runs a chain of 600 upscale men’s clothing stores out of offices in far-away Maryland, which also just happens to have a far-cheaper cost of living.

Acquisitions like this have a funny way of evaporating or at least boiling down the top infrastructure of the acquired company–which would be Bauer. That’s why the billboard, not far from the New To Seattle world headquarters, is so ironic–even startling.

Now, there’s still a chance the deal could be aborted–and Bauer left alone and intact for the time being–if Men’s Wearhouse, another clothier, bumps up its current $1.6 billion hostile takeover bid for Banks. Still, to me this means Bauer–as well as its employees–is in play, and I don’t mean like the guy on the billboard.

Follow William P. Barrett’s work on Twitter by clicking here.

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Third candidate in Seattle for ‘America’s Stupidest Charities’


BCRSF logoThe candidates are lining right up for inclusion on my two-week-old list of “America’s Stupidest Charities.” The criteria is ridiculously simple. A sketchy charity actually nominates itself when its representatives cold-call the New To Seattle world headquarters asking for a donation even though that very same charity had been the subject of a disparaging post in this very same space.

I mean, is it even possible to be stupider than that?

The first entry was the American Veterans Support Foundation, a trade name of the National Vietnam Veterans Foundation. As I recounted here on January 27, a computer-controlled interactive voice called just 11 days after I wrote up a previous call, pointing out only 11 cents of each donated cash dollar went to anything remotely resembling charity and even raising questions about its location and veracity.

A few days later, the second candidate materialized. It was Cancer Support Services, a Dearborn, Mich., affiliate of the oft-criticized Knoxville, Tenn.-based Cancer Fund of America. I wrote here on January 30 that the combined organization raised $14 million in cash gifts but only spent $21,000–that’s 1/5 of 1%–on things I considered charity, with most of the rest going to the fundraisers.  That was even worse than when I ripped up the organization two years.

And now, let me introduce the third candidate. Drum roll again. It’s Community Charity Advancement, doing business as the Breast Cancer Research and Support Fund. The charity–and I use that term loosely here–is based in Pompano Beach, Fla. Continue reading

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New ‘View of the World from 9th Avenue’ would include Seattle


View of the WorldToo bad illustrator Saul Steinberg died in 1999. He was the creator of what is arguably the most famous magazine cover ever: “View of the World from 9th Avenue,” which graced the March 29, 1976, issue of The New Yorker. Its careful distortion of diminishing detail and distance–still studied in art schools–perfectly captured the notion that elite New York City residents are haughty folks full of hubris wrapped up in their own surroundings and barely able to distinguish much of anything west of the Hudson River.

Take a close look at the cover, which, as a New To Seattle service, I have reproduced to the right. Past the thin band across the middle of “Jersey,” you can see Chicago, Texas, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, something representing the Rockies, and in the far distance beyond the Pacific Ocean, China, Japan (as one island) and Russia. Even Kansas City and Utah are marked.

But where Canada and the Pacific come together on the right side upper of a rectangular United States, there’s–nothing.

I have to think if Steinberg were around today to update his 38-year-old masterpiece, Seattle would make an appearance. That’s what meting out a 43-8 Super Bowl thrashing in that Jersey strip can do for a city. Continue reading

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Second candidate in Seattle for ‘America’s Stupidest Charities’


Cancer Support Services logoSnap.

That was the closing sound of my Venus flytrap model of journalism–I just sit, wait and pounce when approached–around another candidate for my new list of “America’s Stupidest Charities.” That’s a roster I just started compiling of dodgy charities that cold-call the New To Seattle world headquarters asking for money despite a previous and critical post in this space about the same charity.

Earlier this week, the inaugural entry was the American Veterans Support Foundation, a d/b/a of the National Vietnam Veterans Foundation. You can read earlier my post about the organization here. According to its own regulatory filings, nearly 90% of the cash collected from the public–$21 million of $24 million raised over six years–went for fundraising expense, mainly the fees of paid outside fundraisers.

The second candidate? (drum roll again, please): Cancer Support Services, of Dearborn, Mich. Continue reading

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First candidate in Seattle for ‘America’s Stupidest Charities’


AVSF logoLast year, the Tampa Bay Times in St. Petersburg, Fla. received a lot of attention–and this year very well may win a Pulitzer Prize–after it published a deeply researched list of “America’s Worst Charities.” The national roster of 50 was based on the large amount of cash raised over the years from the unsuspecting public that went not to good works but to the fundraisers. A number of the top entries–including Kids Wish Network (No 1), Cancer Fund of America (No. 2) and Children’s Cancer Recovery Fund (No. 11) –previously had been written up in this space, also in less-than-glowing terms.

Now, I can’t possibly hope to compete with the massive resources of the Tampa Bay Times and its journalistic partners, CNN and The Center for Investigative Reporting. Looking for suspects, their teams of reporters, producers and editors methodically and systematically scour scores of databases, make hundreds of calls, search thousands of documents and even fly journalists abroad (to check out, I might add, a charity in Guatemala that I mentioned skeptically in November.)

I, on the other hand, operate here on what I call the Venus flytrap model of journalism. That means waiting passively in one spot for critters to come my way, acting quickly, then resetting.

Still, there’s nothing to stop me from starting my own list. So here goes. I’m calling mine “America’s Stupidest Charities.” The criteria is pretty simple: questionable charities that contact the New To Seattle world headquarters asking for money even though they already were the subject of a critical NTS write-up.

The first candidate? (Drum roll, please.) The American Veterans Support Foundation, a trade name of the National Vietnam Veterans Foundation. Continue reading

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With Seattle versus Denver, call it the Stupor Bowl


Super Bowl logoAs the celebration by Seattle of the Seahawks victory over the (locally) hated San Francisco 49ers was beginning last night, so were the jokes.

What to call the first Super Bowl match ever between the largest cities in the only two states to have legal recreational pot?

As a public service, New To Seattle has compiled some of the early contenders:

–Stupor Bowl.

–Super Skunk XLVIII.

–Bong Bowl.

–Pot Bowl.

–Super Bowl AK 48.

–Blaze Bowl.

Whatever the name, on Media Day, as one of my high school friends just wrote, the two teams can have a joint press conference, and during the game the two-minute warnings will have to be given at 4:20.

But remember, the game will be held in a stadium in a state where pot use is illegal, my native New Jersey. However, thanks to certain actions by the staff office of Governor Chris Christie concerning the George Washington Bridge, just a few miles away, the nickname “EZ Pass” is now available. Which might be what legal weed really is all about.

Follow William P. Barrett’s work on Twitter by clicking here.

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