Comcast finally pays for years of bad service, in Seattle and elsewhere

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ComcastCall this a victory lap.

The collapse last week of the proposed Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger shows what can be done when millions of consumers complain–formally, with regulators and lawmakers, or informally, by bitching to their neighbors, who it turns out have the same issues–about overpriced products accompanied by faulty service. Comcast needed approval for this combination from federal regulators, who indirectly are accountable to members of Congress. But what elected official would be willing to stand up and defend Comcast given this track record?

Since becoming New To Seattle, I have railed on in this space about Comcast, which is the dominant provider of Internet and cable TV service where I live. Continue reading

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Gay marriage, Selma and the interesting origins of Seattle’s King County

King County

William Rufus DeVane King (portrait by George Cooke, 1839)

The recent hit movie “Selma” recounts the historic civil rights marches 50 years ago orchestrated by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. through that Alabama city. Meanwhile, on April 28 the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on whether same-sex marriage is a constitutional right.

These events eerily intersect locally now that I am New To Seattle, which sits in King County. It officially is named now for Dr. King, and his face is the logo. But when created in 1852, the county was named for William Rufus DeVane King. Who he? King was the slave-holding vice president-elect of the United States who co-founded the city of Selma–and who probably was gay and in a de facto marriage with a future president of the United States.

Do I have your attention please? Continue reading

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Amid buzz over minimum wage rise, higher Seattle sales tax is ignored

Seattle sales taxIt was a story that got wide national play on April 1 when Seattle implemented the first phase of what in a couple of years will be the highest-in-the-nation minimum wage of $15 an hour. I even saw Mayor Ed Murray interviewed about the minimum wage live on CNN.

But another highest-in-the-nation Seattle increase that day got no big notice. The Seattle sales tax, already tops among the nation’s largest cities, went up from 9.5% to 9.6%. In many ways that says as much about the mindset of Seattle and Washington State. Continue reading

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Murky Florida fundraiser falsely invokes good name of Seattle nonprofit

murky Florida fundraiserOne of the murkiest charities I’ve ever come across is Breast Cancer Research & Support Fund, a trade name of a Pompano Beach, Fla., outfit called Community Charity Advancement Inc. As near as I can tell, virtually none of the contributions received went to breast cancer research and support. The charity used legal accounting tricks to make itself look more efficient rather than the honey pot it really was for its paid fundraiser, who ended up with more than four-fifths of the cash given by unsuspecting donors. There are all kinds of inconsistencies on BCRSF/CCA’s regulatory filings and its Web site.

I’ve twice nominated BCRSF/CCA for my list of America’s Stupidest Charities. Why? Its fundraisers kept calling the New To Seattle world headquarters asking for money after being written up here as a skanky operation. How much dumber can dumb be?

A recent query from a visitor to this space has focused my attention again on BCRSF/CCA. Right now on its Web site, BCRSF/CCA twice claims its good works benefited a well-regarded nonprofit health care provider in Seattle.

I don’t think so. Continue reading

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Is the Seattle boom becoming a bubble–and then a bust?

Seattle boomLiving half of the 1980s in Houston, I experienced up close and personal that eternally repeating economic pattern long known as the boom-bubble-and-bust. I watched the same cycle living for seven years in the Los Angeles area just before becoming New To Seattle. As a New York City property owner for more than three decades. I’ve experienced a couple of BB&Bs.

I’d say Seattle is well into that ominous pattern. To me, the only question is whether the city is still in the boom phase or already has moved into more risky bubble territory. If so, a bust with its many, many problems might not be too far off. Continue reading

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My Seattle neighborhood debates racial profiling

racial profiling

The Magnolia peninsula as seen from downtown Seattle (Vmenkov, via Wikipedia)

Since becoming New To Seattle in 2011, I have lived in Magnolia. It is situated on a hilly peninsula jutting out into scenic Puget Sound–and connected to the rest of Seattle by just three bridges over railroad tracks. Magnolia has the feel of a remote island even though it is less than three miles from the edge of downtown Seattle. For decades this relative isolation has suited many of its 20,000 residents, proud of and thankful for the neighborhood’s reputation as the safest part of Seattle.

But this has been rattled in recent months by an increase in burglaries–owing to a low base, the percentage jump is high although the actual number of offenses remains low for Seattle–car prowls and assorted other incidents, including one truly disturbing episode involving a man naked from the waist down. The response from somewhat panicked neighbors include creation of a private non-profit to organize security patrols paid by residents. An informational session at a local church drew a full house and attracted TV coverage.

Then there’s been the considerable chatter in this typically liberal Seattle neighborhood–which is nearly 90% white–about racial profiling. Continue reading

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Same old Seattle faces adorn Forbes billionaires list

Forbes billionairesIt’s the same-old same-old.

The annual Forbes list of the world’s billionaires out today lists the same nine Seattle-area folks that it did a year ago. Once again, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, is No. 1 in the world, with an estimated net worth of $79.2 billion, up $3.2 billion from a year ago. founder Jeff Bezos is No. 15 at $34.8 billion, up $2.8 billion. Ex-Microsoft CEO and Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer checks in at No. 35 with $21.5 billion, up $2.2 billion in just 12 months. Continue reading

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Cellphone use by Seattle drivers still a big problem

Cellphone use by Seattle driversIt happened again. Or, I should say, almost happened again. Or happened almost again.

A car making a right turn nearly clipped the dog and me as we were about to cross a street during our daily constitutional around the Magnolia neighborhood of Seattle.

Fortunately, following the advice I have imparted here to others, even though we were in a marked crosswalk, I looked left before stepping out, then abruptly halted.

Besides the moving car running a stop sign, what I saw was a lone driver holding a cell phone to her ear, lips moving and not looking around much. It was the third time in a month that I nearly got whacked by a yakker in the ‘hood.

I counted at least four traffic violations: not stopping at a stop sign, not yielding the right of way to a pedestrian in a crosswalk, careless driving second degree and holding a cellphone to the ear while operating a vehicle. It’s the last offense I want to address. Continue reading

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Seattle pedestrians remain an impetuous lot

Seattle pedestriansSeattle is pushing plans to lower speed limits across the city, a bid to make the streets a little safer for pedestrians. The theory is that a pedestrian hit by a car has a better change of surviving if the car is going slower.

Fair enough. But to my thinking, a significant contributing factor is the large number of pedestrians who cross streets without first looking left and right like their mamas told them to. Washington State law says persons on foot have the right of way at intersections whether there is a marked crosswalk or not. That’s fine. But a routine quick glance in both directions would bring the risk of getting hit (or killed) down to just about zero.

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Buses have gone to the dogs in Seattle

A few weeks ago, I rode a crowded bus toward downtown Seattle during the morning rush hour, sitting in the middle of the very back row.  The bus halted at a stop, and the front door opened. I couldn’t see anything, but heard plenty–a snarling dog, apparently brought on the bus by a patron. The dog, which I couldn’t see, was barking at something, perhaps a person but maybe even another dog. Eventually, the clamor subsided, and the bus resumed its trip.

Hardly anyone on the bus besides me looked up. That’s how common dogs are on Seattle mass transit.

A recent local TV news clip about one Seattle dog that sometimes rides by itself to a dog park went viral (click on image above). Now, even by Seattle standards, that’s unusual. But I still think the story got more notice elsewhere in the world than here, where dogs everywhere are far more of a way of life.

In dog-loving Seattle, there are three dogs for every two children (the national average is about one for one). Three years ago, I wrote about this ratio imbalance, suggesting that it might be proof of the Seattle Freeze, the then- but no longer-disputed notion that Seattleites are unfriendly to newcomers. I opined the Seattle Freeze might be the product of a fear of rejection, which dog owners don’t get from their dogs. Ergo, a lot of dogs. Continue reading

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In Seattle, Richard Sherman charity spent little on stated mission

Richard Sherman

Richard Sherman (center) on the cover of Sports Illustrated

Back in November, I wrote about how little of the money raised by Seattle Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch’s personal charity made it to good works. This was after he alluded to the nonprofit, Fam 1st First Family Foundation, during one of his begrudging press availabilities.

As it turns out, he’s not the only Seahawks star with a personal nonprofit. All-Pro cornerback, injured player and new parent Richard Sherman has one, too. And unlike the Berkeley-educated Lynch, who doesn’t like to talk much to the media about anything substantive, the articulate Stanford-educated Sherman talks often about his desire to be a role model and better society.

But Sherman’s charity has one thing in common with Lynch’s. According to the latest filings, not much of the money has gone for its stated purpose. Continue reading

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In blasting Pete Carroll, Seattle forgets it grew through similar risk-taking

Pete Carroll

Pete Carroll (via Wikipedia)

Right now, I’m not sure Pete Carroll could even get elected King County dog-catcher. The vaunted 12 Man legion of Seattle Seahawks fans are still bitterly second-guessing the coach’s decision on how to get that last yard for victory at the end of SuperBowl XLIX on Sunday. You know, not by sending running back Marshawn (Beast Mode) Lynch crashing through the line again but by throwing a short pass that was intercepted.

Now, I’m not much of a football strategist. But if viewers of 115 million TV sets thought Lynch just should be given the ball, maybe, just maybe the tough New England Patriots defense thought that, too, and would prepare accordingly. So Carroll’s decision to call for a quick pass play pattern with a historically low chance of interception that would stop the clock if caught by no one maybe wasn’t such a stupid call. It was simply a calculated risk that didn’t work out.

My goal here, though, is not to defend Carroll, who is more than capable of defending himself. It’s to gently point out to my fellow Seattleites what I see as an inconsistency in their mindset. The people here bitching about Carroll’s risky decision live here only because of a century-and-a-half of audacious risk-taking by the folks who built up Seattle in the first place.

Hear me out on this. Continue reading

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Seahawks make locals forget about Seattle Freeze–for now

Seattle FreezeI actually was beaten to the subject of this post by Melissa Perincheril, someone I have never met. In an opinion column buried (on page C-8) in today’s Seattle Times, she wrote that the successes of the Seattle Seahawks in the run-up to SuperBowl XLIX have helped pull Seattleites together to overcome a local phenomenon that I have written about here from time to time. In her words:

Our city is infamous for what is called “The Seattle Freeze.” We smile politely at you if we are off our game and accidentally make eye contact with you, but we silently pray that you will not start a conversation with us. We are standoffish because our daily wardrobe includes headphones attached to our ears and cellphones glued to our hands–both clear indications of our desire for limited human interaction

According to the author’s bio, Perincheril is a 21-year-old University of Washington grad and presumably has been around here a while. Since the bio says says she works in the South Lake Union area, her employer probably is Amazon.

Perincheril suggests the Seattle Freeze permeates all human contacts. But I think the Seattle Freeze, which now has its own Wikipedia entry, mainly manifests itself in the way locals interact with the considerable number of newcomers–like me, New To Seattle. Still, Perincheril’s point strikes me as extremely well-taken. Continue reading

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Charity with murky financials trolls in Seattle

charity with murky financialsThe charities that cold-call the New To Seattle world headquarters asking for money generally are pretty easy to figure out once I end the call and look at their documents and filings. It turns out most of the funds collected go to outside paid fundraisers, with relatively little making it to what I consider to be a proper charitable purpose.

The Multiple Sclerosis Foundation, a charity that I never had heard of but which called me out of the blue the other day, seems to operate a little differently. Yes, on the West Coast it does use outside paid fundraisers–like the pleasant person who called me–and they seem to rake off more than 70% of the take (charity watchdogs say that cut overall should be no higher than 35%). But unusual for the world of charity, MSF, based in Fort Lauderdale, also has a large corps of inside fundraisers–actual employees whose job it is to raise funds.

Now, there’s nothing illegal or even wrong about having staff members raise money. But this can make it a lot easier for a charity to call its fundraising expenses something else, like education or public awareness, and spruce up its financial efficiencies. And it makes it somewhat harder for someone like me to figure out with exactitude what’s really going on.

The situation also flummoxed the sober Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance, one of the pillars of charitable evaluation. In a current report the BBB said it was “unable to verify” whether the MSF was accurately reporting its expenses, especially those related to fundraising.

This is quite a warning signal.

But after reviewing paperwork, I can see why. Continue reading

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Seattle’s home state still has country’s most regressive tax system

regressive tax systemThis is not exactly news, but bears repeating. Liberal Washington State, of which Seattle is the largest city, continues to have the country’s most regressive–and therefore illiberal–tax system. That means the burden on the poor from state and local taxes is a lot higher than on, say, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Paul Allen, Ken Fisher and the six others on the Forbes 400 list who call the Evergreen State their (tax) home.

Here’s how my long-time journalistic colleague Janet Novack summarized the latest research on this morning:

 Overall, the bottom 20% of Washington State’s nonelderly households, who earn less than $21,000 a year, will pay 16.8% of their income in state and local taxes this year, compared to the 2.4% of income the top 1% earning more than $507,000, will pay, according to the report from the left leaning Institute On Taxation & Economic Policy.

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

America's Stupidest CharitiesThis is going to take some explaining. Public Safety Employees Union 519 right here in Seattle is the fifth candidate for my list of  “America’s Stupidest Charities.”

But, you might think reasonably, a labor union acts naturally in the self-interest of its own members and is not charitable as the phrase is commonly understood. So how can it be considered a charity, let alone one potentially deemed stupid?

The short answer is the union’s ongoing involvement in a telemarketing campaign that looks like a charitable fundraising effort concerning child safety but which appears to me at least as much a ploy to enrich the union’s coffers and those of the telemarketer.

The stupidity part comes from my definition of stupidity: an organization that solicit money from the New To Seattle world headquarters despite being the subject of a previous critical post. How much more stupid can stupid be?

There also are some other interesting issues floating around. Among them: use of the name of a nonexistent cop organization–the King County Police Union–by a labor group most of whose members are not cops; a false claim of tax deductibility and what I would call rather loose assertions of high financial efficiency.

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Seattle murder rate drops, but …

Seattle murder rateMy, how time flies.

During the first half of 2012 Seattle politicians and thought leaders were in a positive panic. There were seven murders in the city during the year’s first 55 days, compared with two for the same period of 2011. The hue and cry got even worse in May of that year when the murder of five by Ian Stawicky, the crazed killer starting at Seattle’s Cafe Racer, brought the yearly count to 21–one above all of 2011.

The mayor called for new measures. The editorial page of The Seattle Times demanded “concrete measures” without specifying exactly what they should be, while a columnist declared gunfire “could strike anyone, anywhere, at any time.” People were in a tizzy.

In both that February and May, I wrote here the city was wildly overreacting. In my New To Seattle view the community, while understandably upset over any killings, was committing some fundamental errors of statistical modeling. These included declaring changes in long-term trends using data from ridiculously short periods of time, and ignoring the tendency of numbers, all other things being equal, to revert to the mean.

What do you know? By the end of 2012, the murder count had risen, but only to 26–exactly the average of the past 10 years, and, with a growing population, a lower per-capita rate.

I bring this up again because we’ve just closed the books on 2014, two years later. How many murders in Seattle? By my count, 21. That’s also below the new 10-year average of 24 and, with the added population, maybe the second-lowest single-year murder rate of the past half-century.

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The tunnel sinking Seattle, and other holiday tales

tunnel sinking Seattle

Seattle skyline (photo USA Today)

With a booming economy, an influx of new residents and legal recreational pot, Seattle fancies itself a happenin’ place as it dances through the end-of-the-year holiday period. The problem, unfortunately, is that not all of the happenings are uplifting.

The world’s largest tunnel boring machine–stuck under the Seattle waterfront, where it has barely budged since stalling two Pearl Harbor Days ago–is so heavy (6,700 tons) that it has begun to cause cracks in nearby office buildings, some of the oldest in earthquake-prone Seattle and therefore probably the most rickety. The Japanese-made machine is supposed to be boring a one-lane-in-each-direction underground toll road for nearly two miles so that the two-lanes-in-each-direction above-ground free Alaskan Way Viaduct can be removed.

The machine is called Bertha–not alliteratively because it is big, although, with a diameter of 57 feet, it is, but in honor of Seattle’s first and only woman mayor, Bertha Landes, elected in 1926. The project is proving to be a libel on her good name. The project was abruptly halted on December 7, 2013, after Bertha hit a metal pipe that the parties–the Washington State Department of Transportation and private contractor Seattle Tunnel Partners–both knew about but didn’t bother to remove. The mess has become a tourist attraction.

The current completion date has been pushed back nearly two years, to late 2017. Bets, anyone? As for the cost, well, officially it has stayed at $4 billion, including $1.4 billion just for the boring, although it’s hard to see how this won’t be busted big time. Who might pick up any extra tab? The tolls can’t possibly be put high enough (especially since there would be any number of free city street alternatives for motorists). One way or the other, it likely would be taxpayers, although it remains to be seen whether it would be those of just Seattle or the state as a whole. Continue reading

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

stupidest charitiesA major characteristic of the end-of-the-year holiday is exchange of gifts. After it recently cold-called me, a veterans group that I then described in this space as “iffy”–mainly because its paid fundraisers got almost all the money donated–just cold-called again asking for money.

Now that’s a gift to me, since it provides material to write about.The call was on behalf of The Center for American Homeless Veterans, doing business as the Association for Homeless and Disabled Veterans, headquartered in Falls Church, Va.

And here’s my gift back to the nonprofit, which in its latest reporting period handed over 90% of the $2.1 million raised to outside fundraisers rather than spend that money on something worthwhile. I’m officially adding CAHV as an candidate for my list of “America’s Stupidest Charities.” The largely self-nominating criteria is simple: A dubious charity solicits money from the New To Seattle world headquarters despite being the subject of a previous critical post.

CAHV becomes the fourth contender for my stupidest-charities list, a competition that started earlier this year after a rash of follow-up calls. Here are the others:

With such formidable competition, it’s really hard for a nonprofit to stand out. But CAHV, whose filings say it advocates and lobbies for troubled veterans, is trying.

CAHV is one of many sketchy charities that employ computer-driven interactive voices. The persona on the earlier call from CAHV used the name “Eric Thornton.” This latest call was in the name that I understood to be “Mike McCann.”

Like “Thornton,” “McCann” wasn’t very good at answering my questions. After he said a contribution would go to help disabled or homeless veterans, I jumped in and asked if that meant paying for actual facilities or programs to help vets. CAHV’s filings say no; what’s left of the gifts after the fundraisers get their hefty cut goes solely to pay for advocacy.

“McCann” didn’t know. “I’m in training right now,” he said, a rather amusing statement for a computer but one I frequently hear in these situations. “McCann” offered to get a supervisor on the line to answer my question. Sure, I said.

After some fumbling–I was inadvertently routed to someone in the “records department”–a real human identifying himself as Leslie Heskett came on the line. But he couldn’t answer my question, either. “I don’t have that information in front of me,” he said. Heskett, who said he really worked for paid fundraiser Residential Programs Inc., gave me a number I could call for more information. However, he agreed with me that his organization’s calling would-be donors and then telling them that they had to make another call to get basic information wasn’t such a hot fund-raising strategy.

But then again, difficulty in getting information out of CAHV seems to be part of its m.o. Several days ago, I sent an email seeking more information to its president, ex-Army major Brian A. Hampton, who, with another veterans charity he heads out of the same office, was paid as much as $181,668, or more than 35% of what remained after the telemarketers for both charities got their cut. That other charity, Circle of Friends for American Veterans, made the now-famous Tampa Bay Times list last year of “America’s Worst Charities.”

My email was sent via a page on the CAHV website that proclaims, “We‘ll be happy to return your comment, question or suggestion.

I’m still waiting for a response. It would be another gift.

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

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Another iffy veterans group trolls in Seattle

iffy veterans groupThe logo of The Center for American Homeless Veterans, displayed here, proclaims, “Put Veterans First.” But after reviewing its financial filings, I’d say the more accurate motto would be “Put Paid Fundraisers First.” I mean, what other conclusion is possible about an organization that handed the overwhelming bulk of money raised from the public in the name of a good cause to paid telemarketers?

Operating under the trade name Association for Homeless and Disabled Veterans, fundraisers for CAHV have been cold-calling around. One such cold call came recently to the New To Seattle world headquarters. Continue reading

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