Will Seattle voters raise the nation’s highest big-city sales tax?

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highest big-city sales taxVoters in Seattle will be asked in November whether they want to raise the sales tax to help bail out the local bus system. The exact wording on the ballot likely will not point out that Seattle already has the nation’s highest major-city sales tax.

In case you’re contemplating a visit to Seattle, be aware that the local total sales tax bite right now is 9.5%. That’s the highest of any big city in the country (No. 2, apparently, is Chicago at 9.25%). I say big-city because there are a few tiny places out there with far higher rates. Tops, according to the Tax Foundation, is the 12.725%–one penny for every eight others–charged in Tuba City, Ariz. (population 8,600), which, spider-like, quietly waits to catch unwary tourists en route to the nearby Grand Canyon.

The ballot question here in Seattle is whether to raise the tax by 0.1 percentage point to 9.6%. There’s an interesting back story behind this proposal, and not one that reflects terribly well on Seattle-area officials. Continue reading

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Seattle makes another ‘most snobbiest cities’ list

snobbiest citiesBeing a prominent big city can be hell, I guess. Last year Travel + Leisure magazine ranked Seattle in a tie for No. 5 on its list of “America’s snobbiest cities.” I really didn’t see it then, pointing out that the dictionary definition of a snob was “one who tends to patronize, rebuff, or ignore people regarded as social inferiors and imitate, admire, or seek association with people regarded as social superiors.” That was not the city I have observed since becoming New To Seattle.

But maybe I was wrong.

The real estate web site Movoto just published a list of the “snobbiest big cities in America.” Seattle checked in even higher, at No. 3, behind only the Other Washington and hated San Francisco. Continue reading

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Seattle toll system should have received an F

Seattle toll system
Evidence of governmental ineptitude (pursuant to the Washington State Public Records Act)

Click on headline above to read comments below.

It can be stated without question that Washington State’s electronic toll system should have received an F.

The state’s expensive, supposedly state-of-the-art Good To Go! system misread that very letter on someone else’s license plate as an E. Its computers then decided that a car in my family had crossed the world’s longest floating bridge on the evening of Valentine’s Day 2014–in just one direction, mind you–and applied a $3.95 charge to an account I had set up and funded with $30.00.

I only learned about this six months later when I looked at the account online after reading scathing Seattle Times columns by Danny Westneat (here and here) about the many billing problems of Good To Go! I had not crossed the span, the Route 520 bridge across Lake Washington west toward Seattle, since it became tolled again in December 2011, a few months after becoming New To Seattle. Upon my emailed protest, a human in the Good To Go! system, part of the Washington State Department of Transportation and which covers one other toll bridge and a road, took a look at the recorded photographic image and quickly canceled the charge.

But I wanted to see for myself the stark evidence of rank governmental incompetence. I formally demanded my rights to inspection and copying under the Washington State Public Records Act. Eventually, staffers at the Good To Go! customer service office in Seattle, where I went after filing my public records request, showed me the photographic image and gave me a copy.

The image, as you can see above, was barely legible even after the agency and I tried to enhance it. So I’m not sure how much I should credit the claims of Good To Go! workers that their automatic toll system hardly ever screws up automatically.

But I know one failing grade it deserved.

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

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Seattle drivers among worst of worst

Seattle drivers among worstIn my experience, Seattle drivers don’t speed, change lanes wildly or run lights while routinely offering to yield the right of way at all-way stop intersections. But they’re apparently damn lousy drivers, anyway.

Allstate Insurance just came out with its fourth annual list ranking drivers in the nation’s 200 largest cities by safety since I became New To Seattle in 2011. In the year before before I arrived, Seattle ranked No. 128 out of 200, which wasn’t so great, since No. 1 is the best and No. 200 the worst. The 2011 list dropped Seattle down to No. 147. A year later, Seattle sank to No. 154. The 2013 roster lowered Seattle drivers to No. 160.

And now? Drum roll please. Seattle fell another 13 clicks to  No. 173. The Emerald City now ranks among the bottom seventh. Continue reading

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Rutgers is coming to Seattle, but not as oldest college football team

Rutgers oldest college football teamOn August 28, Washington State University will open its football season with the annual “Seattle Game,” the one home match the Cougars play each year 300 miles from their base in Pullman. (Probably for the last time, too.) The opponent in CenturyLink Field this time is Rutgers, New Jersey’s state university.

The game will be the first for Rutgers as a member of the Big Ten (which for $ome rea$on now ha$ 14 team$). You’ll probably hear a lot about the long storied history of Rutgers. Founded in 1766 with a charter signed by Ben Franklin’s illegitimate son, Rutgers is exactly twice as old as Wazzu (started in 1890), and for that matter 95 years older than Seattle’s University of Washington.

You might even hear about the participation of Rutgers in what it and many sports enthusiasts call the first college football game, against Princeton in New Brunswick, N.J., on November 6, 1869. But as the holder of two Rutgers degrees (as well as two tickets I bought for the Seattle Game), I’m here to tell you that contest was not a football game as the term is now understood in the U.S.

It was a soccer match.

That didn’t stop Rutgers from running for decades a bogus and ultimately unsuccessful campaign that college football started on the campus and that it should be the home of the College Football Home of Fame. Given the financial improprieties that plagued the hall’s official owner, the National Football Foundation, Rutgers probably ducked a bullet. The hall of fame has moved around–like, one might say, a football–and just relocated again, from South Bend, Ind., to Atlanta. In fact, the grand re-opening is scheduled for this weekend.

As a weekend referee of youth soccer for 17 years, I might fairly be accused of having a bias here. But I think it a slight against the great sport of soccer for the athletic community not to acknowledge that the famous Rutgers-Princeton encounter in 1869 had little to do with tackle football, which would not even be invented for several years thereafter.

What follows is my New To Seattle take on the back story, which–plug plug–is liberally borrowed from a novel I’ve written, entitled OFFSIDE: A Mystery–scheduled for publication this fall. Continue reading

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Good To Go system in Seattle takes its toll

Good To Go!On February 14 of this year, a camera on the Route 520 toll bridge from Bellevue across Lake Washington to Seattle took a picture at 7:24 p.m. of a license plate on a vehicle heading west. Washington State Department of Transportation computers decided the plate was registered to me. A $3.95 charge was deducted from a previously unused Good To Go! toll account I set up three years ago upon becoming New To Seattle, and funded with $30 of my hard-earned money.

There was one small problem: None of our cars has gone across the 520 bridge since tolls were put back on the span in December 2011. Not once. And certainly no early one-way trip back from romantic Bellevue on the evening of Valentine’s Day 2014. Continue reading

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IRS scammer makes threatening call to Seattle

IRS scammerA young friend of mine here in Seattle got a threatening telephone call recently from someone who said he was from the Internal Revenue Service. The caller–who spoke barely intelligible English–said my friend owed a little over $2,000 in taxes and that the agency was issuing an arrest warrant. But the debt could be settled for only $500, and the arrest warrant canceled, if my friend would just provide a credit card number over the phone.

My friend understandably was worried but, since all taxes had been paid, wisely declined to provide a number. My friend then contacted me and allowed me to act as an authorized representative. From the New To Seattle world headquarters I called back the telephone number, (202) 241-1046. Someone answered speaking English in a rather heavy accent. He eventually spelled his name for me as Fabher Modher.

Modher said my friend owed back taxes. I asked which specific office of the IRS Modher was with. He said he was with “U.S. Bank.”

Then he hung up.

That might be the last contact I have with Modher, which I rather doubt is his real name (A Google search of that name produced absolutely zero hits.) He is clearly a scammer plying what has become one of the hot new national identity theft games, one that preys on a heady brew of ignorance, fear and panic. Continue reading

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Key gap at drivers license office near Seattle

Key gap at drivers license office near Seattle Click on headline to see comments below.

Upon becoming New to Seattle in 2011, one piece of advice I received was to get my new Washington State driver’s license at the state Department of Licensing office in Shoreline, the first town north of Seattle. Shorter waits, I was told. That proved to be true. As I recounted in my very first post here reflecting on the then-ailing state of the area’s economy, I was in and out of the office with my license in a mere 35 minutes.

But that was more than three years ago. Things can change, as I found out on Saturday morning when I made a return visit to the Shoreline office to help family members moving to Seattle get their own licenses. We got to the Aurora Ave. N facility 10 minutes before the 8:30 a.m. opening, figuring it would be another quick in-and-out.

Well, it was a quick out, of sorts. But that’s because we never went in.

Here is the text of the “customer comment card” I mailed later in the day to the DOL’s Customer Relations Assistant Director in Olympia:

As doors opened, an employee came out to tell the waiting line that another employee had gone home with the key to turn on computer system, and that employee had left for vacation, meaning applications couldn’t be processed.

It appears this office has poor management in charge, which you should rectify.

I also recommend that a second set of keys be authorized.

Now I don’t know how many other taxpaying residents ended up being disadvantaged for lack of a duplicate key. Fortunately, we had enough sense to quickly scoot north on S.H. 99 another six miles through Edmonds to the next DOL office in Lynnwood. The management there had a level of competence such that no employee had gone off on a two-week vacation with the only key to the office computer system. We were in and out in 40 minutes (the economy is doing better, and people are moving here for jobs, so the wait was longer than in 2011–a good thing, actually).

To sum up, Seattle residents had to drive one-sixth of the way to the Canadian border and back to get a Washington State driver’s license because a government employee was in too much of a hurry to leave on holiday, and there was no back-up. The key take-away, in more ways than one.

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

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Mosquitoes largely absent in Seattle

Mosquitoes largely absent in SeattleThe Seattle summer–early July to sometime in October–is a wondrous time. The sun is abundant, the rains that fall most of the other nine months disappear and temperatures rarely rise above the 70s or low 80s.

Here’s another plus. Despite all the water hereabouts, there are hardly any mosquitoes. One generally can sit on a backyard deck or in a park for a long time without getting bitten to death or needing burning insect-repellant citronella candles (which are legal in the U.S. but banned in Europe).

Here’s why. Continue reading

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Seattle area ranks No. 2 on new Coolest Cities list

coolest citiesThe same organization that figures out the country’s richest persons has put the Seattle area No. 2 on a list of “coolest cities.”

The article published today on Forbes.com didn’t offer a precise definition of the concept. But the factors weighed–including arts and culture opportunities, recreation, foodie options, average age and net population growth–suggests a happening place appealing to younger adults New To Seattle, or new to wherever.

Forbes.com reckoned that Seattle ranked just behind the Other Washington–you know, the one with the White House. Just behind. The article said Seattle “could have edged out D.C. for the number one spot were it not for its fairly low diversity: 72.7% of the metro area is white, 13% Asian, and 5% black.” Continue reading

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Fancy Queen Anne area leads Seattle in dog attacks on letter-carriers

Wits its graceful trees, old mansions and breathtaking views, Queen Anne long has been one of Seattle’s nicest–and most expensive–neighborhoods. Here’s another distinction. According to official U.S. Postal Service reports, the dogs of Queen Anne attacked more letter-carriers than any other city neighborhood during the latest federal fiscal year.

Of the 28 documented dog attacks on USPS workers–down from 36 a year earlier–three took place on Queen Anne. No other Seattle neighborhood had as many. However, five ‘hoods had two incidents each: Beacon Hill, Central Area, Columbia City, Phinney Ridge and Wallingford. Generally, the attacks were scattered across town, although a wide swath of North Seattle had none.

One neighborhood that really cleaned up its act was isolated West Seattle. Only one attack was noted in the year ending September 30, 2013, compared with nine–25% of the entire city total–during the previous year.

The interactive map above, which I put together with Mapalist.com (that’s who’s asking for a donation, not me) and Google Maps, plots the precise location of each dog attack. Clicking on any bloody red box containing the deceptively cute dog reveals the street address and the option to zoom in the neighborhood. You also can resize the overall map and move the field of view to your heart’s content.

By and large, the incidents–most of them actual bites rather than missed lunges, which the Post Office also counts–were not serious enough to warrant medical attention. The feds provided the reports, variously written in the first and third person, with the location of the attack but, on privacy grounds, the names of all carriers and dog owners deleted.

So I can’t name names. But I can name places with gripping detail! Continue reading

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New USPS Seattle dog attack reports show no exaggeration

USPS Seattle dog attackA couple weeks ago, I wrote here that the U.S. Postal Service once again was exaggerating the annual number of dog attacks upon letter-carriers in Seattle. “On the basis of present documentation” I said–namely, reports provided to me under a Freedom of Information Act request–the USPS Seattle dog attack count was including incidents happening outside city limits or even across Puget Sound on Bainbridge Island such that it swelled the true number of Seattle attacks by 10%. That put the city in a tie for 15th place nationally in a dog-house list of cities with the most attacks. (Raising public awareness about dog attacks on lettter-carriers has been a Post Office cause for decades.)

But there was a numerical discrepancy. The national press release the Post Office issued in May shaming Seattle said the city was the location of 28 attacks (mainly bites) for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2013. But in response to my subsequent FOIA request for all the records documenting that figure, the feds coughed up only 22 reports, including the two outside the city. Uh, so what was the basis for the 28 number? From the New To Seattle world headquarters I filed yet another written request with the Post Office, which in the past has had problems supplying me with the proper paperwork concerning canine capers in Seattle. I asked for either the missing reports or an explanation.

In response, I recently received another batch of reports. The USPS cover letter said that in its original document dump to me, records for a part of the fiscal year inadvertently had not been pulled. But what I got was not another six reports, but another 11. That brought the total number of dog incidents the USPS deemed responsive to my query to 33–five more than the 28 in the press release.

But guess what? Five of the 33 incidents (including three of the second batch of 11) took place at locations outside Seattle city limits. So that means the number of dog attacks within the city was 28–exactly the number in that big press release.

Now I have no idea whatsoever whether the USPS in Seattle was somehow meticulous in its mapping or just plain lucky (it certainly was neither last year, when the level of puffery was 17%). But–again on the basis of present documentation–it now appears the agency this time did not hype the number of dog attacks within dog-loving Seattle. So the record now stands corrected.

Now that I have what seems to be the full set of reports, I soon will publish my detailed analysis identifying the Seattle neighborhood whose dogs were most dangerous to letter-carriers. Last year it was working-class West Seattle, but there’s a surprising new No. 1 this time.

And that’s no exaggeration.

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

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New trailer for Seattle-set ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ shows strange geography

Did you know the richest bachelor in Seattle offices in insular, working class West Seattle? I didn’t, either, until I saw the trailer released this morning for “Fifty Shades of Grey.” That’s the film adaptation of the erotic BDSM trilogy by British author E.L. James. Universal Pictures now plans to open the flick in theaters on February 14, 2015–Valentine’s Day for those whose relationships need sparking with some whips and chains.

As I noted here more than two years ago, the Fifty Shades of Grey novel trio is set in Seattle. It’s a location that doesn’t have a lot to do with the plot other than, maybe, it’s glamorous.

Mere hours after its release, the trailer itself, which features a Beyonce soundtrack of “Crazy in Love,” has already become the subject of considerable ridicule. The final scene of the trailer shows sexy youngish tycoon Christian Grey, described in the book as Seattle’s wealthiest unmarried man, looking out his skyscraper office window (he’s dressed in a suit and doesn’t have co-star Dakota Johnson tied up near him, so I’m assuming he’s in the office) at the dramatic Seattle skyline along Elliott Bay on the city’s western side. The Space Needle is on the left, Columbia Tower, the city’s tallest building, is on the right. Grey, who is played by Jamie Dornan, actually appears higher than the top of anything on the skyline.

By my reckoning, the only place Grey could be standing is somewhere in West Seattle, the surprisingly remote, hilly peninsula full of middle-class folks two miles directly southwest across the bay from downtown. Not a very likely venue in real life for a billionaire to work or live. But then again, mommy porn author James was even less New To Seattle than I was when the books started appearing in 2011, having never ever visited the city and doing all of her local research on the Internet. Continue reading

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Yep, USPS still exaggerates Seattle dog attacks

USPS logoOn May 14, I posted a story under this headline: “Is the USPS still exaggerating in new Seattle dog bite count?” The Post Office that day had released its annual list of “dog attack city ratings,” putting Seattle in a tie for No. 15 with 28 incidents involving letter-carriers during the year ending September 30, 2013.

Why was I so skeptical? Last year, when Seattle was tied for No. 2 in the annual USPS press release with 42 attacks,  others in dog-loving Seattle raised questions. So I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the posties for the underlying paperwork.

Whadayaknow? It turned out the Post Office, which for decades has been on a jihad against dogs, exaggerated the Seattle attack count by 17%, including incidents that occurred outside city limits and even across Puget Sound on Bainbridge Island. Only 36 of the 42 occurred in Seattle proper, and two of them didn’t involve dog bites but dog lunges. And in case you wonder, nothing in the press statement the USPS sent out said out-of-town attacks were included.

Given this back story, I filed another FOIA request for the reports underlying the newest set of claims. Guess what? The USPS is still exaggerating! Continue reading

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Could Seattle’s depiction as Fun City go up in smoke?

Pot clipOnce again Seattle is the center of worldwide media attention. And once again it’s due to marijuana, in this case the July 8 opening of a single store near the sports stadiums to sell legal recreational more than a year-and-a-half after the state’s voters gave approval. (Nearly two dozen more locations in Seattle alone will open once paperwork and regulatory issues are resolved.)

Typical of the Seattle-As-Fun-City coverage was Jimmy Fallon on NBC’s Tonight Show depicting the Space Needle as a giant bong. Reporters from Europe and other far-flung places had plenty of yuks interviewing folks outside Cannabis City in the long line that started the night before. This being dog-happy Seattle, some opening-day buyers even brought along their best friend. “First puppy in state to buy legal pot,” declared one tweet with a photo.

Aside, perhaps, from a claimed constitutional right to get high, one of the major arguments advanced in Washington State for legalizing pot was to end the large diversion of law enforcement resources toward offenses with no victims, and also to raise a little coin. To me, still New To Seattle, legal pot might prove again the validity of that other great principle of human behavior, the Law of Unintended Consequences. Continue reading

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A Seattle roof gathers woe moss

A mossy roof in Seattle

A mossy roof in Seattle

As I review the characteristics that help define Seattle, several come to mind. They include beautiful vistas, liberal politics, omnipresent coffee shacks and, increasingly, LGBT relationships (led by the voters’ legalization of gay marriage and a openly gay new mayor, Ed Murray, who talks up his husband at every opportunity).

Here’s another: roof moss.

Various climatological factors make the tops of many Seattle houses look like petri dishes for clumps of green growths. The appearance is not exactly that of the quaint thatched roofs found in parts of the U.K. To me, a better label would be residential acne.

No less an authority than the Washington State University agricultural extension office in King County (where Seattle is located) has issued a published warning:

The unsightly look of moss on roofs is not the only reason that control of this moss is important. Moss will often grow so vigorously that it causes the singles or shakes to become loosened and raised. Under very wet conditions, water can back up under these raised areas and cause interior leaks and water damage. Often accompanying the moss will be a green coating of algae on those areas that the moss has not yet colonized. Algae becomes very slipper and treacherous and have been implicated in more than one roof-related disaster.

Seattle’s climate–abundant rain and humidity, plus moderate temperatures and minimal sun–is conducive to moss growth, but the city hardly is alone. However, in Seattle roof moss removal is something of a big industry unlike anything I have witnessed elsewhere. I hear competing commercials on the radio for the service, just like the spots aired in this sunshine-deficient climate by sellers of Vitamin D. From time to time I even have been cold-called at the New To Seattle world headquarters by moss removers who–lucky me–just happen to be working in my neighborhood. Continue reading

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‘Seattle Freeze’ is now an accepted fact around Seattle

Wikipedia entry

Wikipedia entry for Seattle Freeze

It was a year after becoming New To Seattle in 2011 that I started writing in this space about the Seattle Freeze. That’s the notion Seattleites aren’t all that friendly to newcomers. I certainly found that to be true, as did the vast majority of other relatively recent immigrants I chatted up on the topic as I bopped around town, often refereeing youth soccer matches. However, despite Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary entries on the subject, and a 70-year-old printed suggestion that I found, folks who have been here awhile tended to disagree with me, sometimes forcefully.

But I think local mainstream public opinion has finally come around to my way of thinking.

The latest example appeared Wednesday at the top of the front page of The Seattle Times. A story by Gene Balk, the paper’s long-time librarian and statistics guru (as well as a fellow New Jersey native and Rutgers grad), reported on the large number of Seattle apartments with only one occupant. The very first sentence called the city “home of the notorious ‘Seattle Freeze’ “.

Think about that. Existence of the Seattle Freeze stated as a fact in the city’s newspaper of record! Just like the sun rises in the east or it rains a lot in Seattle. Continue reading

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Delta CEO snookers Seattle with old planes that don’t work well

Richard Anderson, CEO of Delta Air Lines (via Delta)

Richard Anderson, CEO of Delta Air Lines (via Delta)

I’ve never met Richard Anderson, but I think he has a public relations problem. He appears on a certain video that’s played over and over. It’s supposed to be serious. But many in the audience laugh—at him. And when the company he heads promptly fails to deliver—well, that laughter quickly turns to anger.

Anderson is the CEO of Delta Air Lines. The world’s third-largest carrier is starting a war with Alaska Airlines. Much of the battle will be centered around Seattle, where Alaska is headquartered and has half the service in and out of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Delta has about one-eighth.

If you fly Delta, you know Anderson. Displaying his CEO ego, he appears in a video at the start of each flight. He extolls the airline and its employees, who in my experience are among the more surly in the air. Given what they have been through, including a bankruptcy, I can’t say I really blame them.

And, of course, they work for Richard Anderson, the CEO since 2007. “We have to watch that video, too, every flight,” one Delta flight attendant groused to me recently. That was the first time I heard an airline employee openly bad-mouth the boss since the 1980s when Frank Lorenzo used union busting and bankruptcy to run Continental/Eastern/Frontier/PeopleExpress smack into the ground. Is it a coincidence that Anderson’s first job in aviation was as a lawyer for Continental in 1987, when Lorenzo was still in charge? (As it happened, Anderson joined Continental the very same year my lengthy cover article for Texas Monthly accurately predicted the downfall of the hated Lorenzo and his enterprise.)

From what I, New To Seattle, can tell, Alaska Airlines enjoys a good reputation among Seattleites for pleasant service and fair prices. To me, Delta’s persona is that of a predator. The company charges what the market will bear, screws passengers—it just announced adverse changes in its frequent flyer program—and uses old equipment. Continue reading

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Seattle embraces high tech–except for the Internet

Comcast logoLet’s see, now. At the New To Seattle world headquarters I get my Internet service from Comcast. Four times in the past three weeks it has gone out, for periods ranging from 30 minutes to four hours. Comcast outtages usually aren’t that frequent, but they’re hardly uncommon, either. Since I also get my landline phone service from Comcast, and that blows when the Internet does, I have to call Comcast on my cellphone.

I don’t know whether to laugh like Jeff Bezos or cry like Bert Lahr’s Cowardly Lion in “The Wizard of Oz” when the tape tells me I quickly and easily can check on the status of the service problem (it’s never at my end) by going to a Comcast website. Remember, the reason I’m calling is that I can’t get quickly and easily to a Comcast website–or any other, either. (For some reason, the cable TV service I also get from Comcast rarely fails, meaning while I’m waiting I get to kill time by binge-watching something really stupid like “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.”)

Judging from comments on Seattle Reddit and other forums for venting, this is a persistent problem across Seattle. Yes, that Seattle, the city that touts itself as the new high-tech Mecca, a region with Amazon.com, Microsoft, a major Adobe research facility, a string of brand-name Internet firms and God know how many NSA intercept taps.

Nor is the Internet problem limited to Comcast, which is by far the city’s largest ISP, with a near-monopoly position. Still, despite the persistent lack of quality and reliability, Comcast keeps trying to charge more. This forces savvy customers into a Kabuki dance of repeatedly calling and threatening to walk unless the price increase is rolled back, which it always is. I chalk up much of the lackluster performance to toothless regulation by the City of Seattle.

None of this is especially new. I have written here and here about Comcast’s difficulties serving the Seattle market. Thank goodness Comcast doesn’t run the cellphones.

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