|By Admin1 (admin) on Saturday, September 13, 2003 - 4:22 pm: Edit Post|
Philippines RPCV Nathaniel Jackson opposes Seattle's tax on coffee
Philippines RPCV Nathaniel Jackson opposes Seattle's tax on coffee
Seattle brews tempest in a coffee cup
SEATTLE, WASHINGTON -- Nathaniel Jackson's liberal bona fides are impeccable: He marched in civil rights demonstrations in the segregated South; as a Peace Corps volunteer he taught school in the Philippines. Jackson, 60, and his wife run Cafe Allegro, after 28 years, an institution in the University District.
Chris Maykut, 29, has similar credentials. Reared in Seattle and a product of public schools, he is the owner of Chaco Canyon Cafe and Juice Bar, where all his products are 100 percent organic. Coffee is fair trade and shade-grown; thrift store furniture and mugs enjoy a second life.
But this week, the two University-District proprietors were at odds over an issue that has the Seattle coffee community in, well, something of a froth: On Tuesday, a measure that will add a 10-cent tax to all espresso drinks sold within the city limits will be put before voters. (Drip coffee is exempt.) If passed, the measure would boost funding for low-income children's programs and early education.
Nathaniel Jackson taught school in the Philippines.
In Seattle, where coffee beans seem grouped with grains at the foundation of the food pyramid, people think the idea is either completely mad or perfectly logical.
This perhaps is to be expected in the Emerald City of Contradictions. It is the left-leaning home of entrepreneurial billionaires, and throughout the 20th century its ingenuity produced everything from Frango mints to Boeing jets, its talents from Jimi Hendrix to Kurt Cobain. Its laid-back, hard-working populace is fueled seemingly by caffeine.
The tax proposal, called Initiative 77, is sponsored by the Economic Opportunity Institute, a nonprofit agency that develops public policy for low-income families. It collected enough signatures last year to place the initiative on the ballot.
Proponents, who include educators, medical professionals, religious leaders and organized labor, say the measure would generate $6.5 milliona year. Opponents, including hoteliers, restaurateurs, and coffee industry officials from Starbucks to street cart owners, have formed a group called JOLT -- Joined in Opposition to the Latte Tax. They put the figure between $1.5 and $3.5 million a year.
Across the country, voters are deciding whether to raise taxes for services in the wake of a recession. Arkansas voters this week rejected a $1.2 billion tax proposal that would help flagging revenues. Last November, Multnomah County voters narrowly passed a property tax levy that raises $10 million a year to finance childhood programs such as Head Start.
On a recent cloudy day, Jackson walked, unannounced, into Chaco Canyon to discuss the situation. Maykut's pro-tax voice is in the minority in the coffee industry, making him something of a lightning rod.
Maykut, talking to a reporter, was surprised to see Jackson, whom he had only met two days before. He invited him to the cafe's back room, and the men talked over glasses of fresh fruit juice.
Jackson thinks the tax will create an extra layer of accounting and fears that the 10-cent cost, which most shops are likely to pass on to customers, will drive business away. But it is the principle of the tax that bothers him the most.
"I couldn't care more about children," Jackson said. "But they are the responsibility of society, not just coffee drinkers. I was a teacher. I helped found the Waldorf School here. But this is unfair, and just plain wrong.
"Supporters of the tax think espresso drinkers and coffee business folks are wealthy," Jackson said. "But let me tell you, we're in the worst crunch since the Reagan days. And I serve everybody. I've got guys in three-piece suits and I've got homeless folks."
Maykut was equally impassioned. "We're at a point where we have to do something," he said. "We need to lessen the gap between achieving in school and not. When kids entering kindergarten start out behind, some never catch up. For a lot of kids, this tax can make the difference."
He continued: "When I was growing up here, schools were among the best in the country. Seattle was a national model. Now our schools are at the bottom. I'm not saying this is the best way to go about it, but something has to be done. For a dime, we can."
He said the added bureaucracy many fear the tax would create is not problematic. "I can create a program with my 10-year-old used cash register," he said. "It's just not a big deal."
Many Seattleites are raising the question, "What's the connection between espresso and education?"
Laura Paskin , spokeswoman for the Economic Opportunity Institute, said there was a logical link. "The sales tax on a shirt might go for many things the government is responsible for, like roads and libraries. Those things have nothing to do with the item, either."
John Blackwell, co-owner of Espresso Specialists, a purveyor of espresso machines throughout the nation, said he found Initiative 77 "worrisome."
"Where do you draw the line, even in a liberal town like this one?" he said. "Not every tax is a good thing, but it's bad public policy to tax espresso to pay for child care. Espresso is an easy target. Why not tax all luxury drinks -- soda, tea and milkshakes?"
In the once-working class district of Wallingford, Paul Millage sat in Zoka Coffee with his laptop and a cup of Americano. A high school teacher who is taking off a year (he will teach at a new charter school in Oregon next year), Millage has plenty to say about educational achievement.
"We can dole out $400 tax credits so people can stimulate the economy by shopping at Wal-Mart," Millage said. "People can plop down $40 for a baseball game, yet ignore the needs of education."
A tax on coffee, he said, "just seems so random."
Indeed, last year the Economic Opportunity Institute decided to submit the initiative after examining what would be both legal -- and not a necessity -- to tax. Few items were eligible, and among them espresso seemed to best satisfy those criteria. Those who consume one drink each workday would pay an extra $26 year.
Sarah Allen, editor of Fresh Cup, a coffee trade magazine based in Portland, said the typical markup on espresso drinks is between 30 percent and 40 percent. In addition, she said, industry research shows that the majority of espresso drink consumers fared well on the socioeconomic ladder. "It's hard to generalize, but they are usually middle- to upper-middle class," she said.
Paskin said espresso drinkers wishing to avoid the tax, could. "Espresso is not mandatory. You can make your latte at home. You can drink tea or hot chocolate. You can drink drip."
Jackson, of Cafe Allegro, grimaced. "What kind of attitude is that, to the people of Seattle?" he said. "Just let them drink drip?"
Gabrielle Glaser: 503-221-8271; firstname.lastname@example.org