Is the USPS still exaggerating in new Seattle dog bite count?

USPS logoThe U.S. Postal Service is out today with its annual list of the cities with the highest number of dog attacks upon letter-carriers. Seattle has improved from a two-way tie for No. 2 last year to a three-way tie for No. 15. An interesting question, though, is whether Seattle dogs are better behaved, or the post office is doing a more accurate job of counting Seattle dog attacks.

As visitors to this space might recall, the PO really screwed it up last year, counting a large number of attacks that took place outside Seattle proper. That had the effect of exaggerating the Seattle count by 17%. The truth emerged only a half-year later when I (1) filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to get the underlying records and (2) after getting blown off, submitted a formal appeal full of ridicule that was granted.  In addition to the records, I obtained a large number of apologies from various Postal Service officials for the ridiculous delay, which seemed to value canine privacy.

In last year’s press release for the fiscal year ended September 30, 2012, the Postal Service said there were 42 dog attacks in Seattle. I counted just 36; the others were in suburbs. Today’s press release, for the year ending September 30, 2013, listed 28 incidents in Seattle.

By the Postal Service’s math, that’s a 33% drop. By my math, who knows? There’s no new footnote on the press release to suggest the Postal Service is just counting events within a city’s limits. So it’s a fair bet the feds again are exaggerating the numbers to make the problem–a long-time USPS bête noire–seem a lot worse than it is. Continue reading

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Seattle liberals choose pocketbook in rideshare debate

Lyft rideshare vehicle in Seattle

Lyft rideshare vehicle in Seattle

As I understand political theory, liberals generally favor more governmental regulation, while conservatives do not. But this is being turned on its head in ultra-liberal Seattle, a city that voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in 2012 and still seems to back him. The ultra-liberal masses are rising up against a City Council move to impose rules and requirements on free-wheeling ridesharing services like Lyft (known for the fuzzy pink mustaches affixed to vehicle grills) and Sidecar.

The high and mighty guiding principle here seems to be the pocketbook. The unregulated rideshare services–essentially, drivers using their personal vehicles to ferry passengers who call for service using cell-phone apps–are cheaper than traditional taxis.

So much for political theory. Continue reading

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Government agencies in Seattle yuk it up on social media

Seattle's Space Needle (via Wikipedia)

Humorous look at Seattle’s Space Needle (with apologies to Wikipedia)

Since becoming New To Seattle, I’ve written about what strikes me as a general lack of humor here. Not everyone agrees. A recent University of Colorado study of the U.S.’s “funniest cities” ranked Seattle No. 10 among the country’s 50 largest. I should note, however, that only those 50 cities were examined, as opposed to, say, all 729 cities with populations above 50,000, or even the 285 cities with populations above 100,000. So the CU list quickly became a “least funniest cities” roster, too, and probably not too many clicks after Seattle.

Still, I do find regular pockets of humor in Seattle. But they’re in the most unlikely places: government agencies operating on social media.

When its officers aren’t beating up jaywalkers, the Seattle Police Department has been in the vanguard of this movement, especially on its lively blog, SPD Blotter. The agency posted a guide to the state’s recent legalization of recreational marijuana use under the headline, “Marijwhatnow?” Accompanying a summary of law: a pot-smoking clip from the movie “Lord of the Rings.”

The Washington State Department of Transportation opened a first-person Twitter account in the name of Bertha, the world’s largest tunneling machine working on constructing an underground replacement along the Seattle waterfront to the Alaskan Way Viaduct. The posts have been a riot for their deadpan humor, especially since the machine in December hit a pipe that should have been removed and hasn’t dug another inch. “I get that people are bummed/skeptical,” BerthaDigsSR99 tweeted nearly a half-year later on May 1, “but Seattle Tunnel Partners is working hard to fix me and I’m eager to dig again.”

WSDOT has a regular Twitter feed to update traffic conditions, and the agency is not above applying cheeky labels. This morning, it called two stalled vehicles blocking a freeway lane the “Box Truck Twins,” with a photo thrown in for good measure.

Earlier this week, the Seattle Department of Transportation got grief for posting on Twitter in real time a picture of a traffic jam on the West Seattle Bridge supposedly caused by looky-loos gawking at an accident. The shot was Photoshopped to put a “scumbag hat”–a meme used to signify stupidity, venality or incompetence–atop many of the stopped vehicles. With this text: “You get a scumbag hat … everyone gets a scumbag hat! haha I’m mean #sorry.

Hey, Babe Ruth sometimes led the majors in both home runs and strikeouts. The same could be said of official Seattle attempts at mirth. #LookingForSeattleHumorInGovernment.

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

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In L.A., a total stranger asks about the Seattle suicide rate

Aurora Bridge, Seattle

Aurora Bridge, Seattle (via WADOT)

Over the past several months, I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the Los Angeles area, my home for seven years before becoming New To Seattle. Staying on one trip near LAX in a hotel with a very slow elevator, I struck up a conversation with a young couple from San Diego also waiting to ride.

After I said I live in Seattle, the woman said she had never been there but heard it has the nation’s highest suicide rate.

The lift arrived at their floor and the couple got out. The comment stunned me. A total stranger, prompted about Seattle, could only think of one thing–suicide. Not scenic beauty, Super Bowl XLVIII, legal recreational marijuana, or even the rain.

Talk about an image issue.

The conversation also prompted me to dig into the data. Did Seattle really have the country’s highest suicide rate?

The answer, I am happy to report, is no. But the rate isn’t all that low, either. Continue reading

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For Indian charity soliciting around Seattle, the rest of the story

SIRC logoThe cold caller to the New To Seattle world headquarters said she was soliciting funds for Southwest Indian Relief Council, which she described as providing needed food and other goods to the Navajo Indian reservation in Arizona and New Mexico. I asked if the organization was a stand-alone charity in its own right or just a trade name used by another nonprofit.

Stand-alone, she replied.

I asked her for the charity’s tax identification number, which makes it easier to track down information. After a long wait, she provided the number. Meanwhile, the telephone connection was so bad I asked where on the sprawling reservation she was calling from.

“Manilla,” she replied.

Having lived near the reservation for 12 years, I told her I was not familiar with that place within the Navajo Nation.

The caller said she was in The Philippines.

“Oh,” I said.

Given that revelation, I was not surprised to learn after subsequent research that the Southwest Indian Research Council is not a stand-alone organization. Or that the parent charity has been enmeshed in a lingering scandal.  Or that most of the cash raised didn’t seem to reach needy Indians in the form of tangible aid.

As the now-deceased radio legend Paul Harvey used to say, here’s the rest of the story. Continue reading

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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 signSee update at end of story.

As 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. (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 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

See update at end of post

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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