Allan Domb Wants His Council Career To Make Philadelphia Great

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by Tony West

The last thing Allan Domb needs is the new City job he just got.

A successful Realtor, developer and entrepreneur who has remade much of Center City for the better over the past 35 years, Domb will become a City Councilman at Large in the New Year.

Allan Domb … eager to clean up the books.

Allan Domb … eager to clean up the books.

He’ll be a different face on City Council, which hasn’t seen many volunteers from the upper echelons of the private sector for decades. What can he bring to the city as a whole in this role?

“Give me the hardest and most-unpopular challenges. My career is to make Philadelphia great,” said Domb in a recent interview. And he can afford to try at least.

Jersey City born, Domb attended American University in Washington, D.C. – night school all the way. After graduating, he came to Philadelphia at age 21 to sell door locks. He worked hard (“18 hours a day,” he avows) and tripled his business revenue.

Classes at Temple University’s Real Estate Institute changed his life. In two years he added a sideline selling real estate – a sideline that led him to Top Realtor Award 1982 and a chance to leave the door-lock company behind. He became President of the Greater Philadelphia Association of Realtors in 1990, a position he held again from 2013 to 2015.

In 1999 he entered the development field. He converted the Parc Rittenhouse and the Lanesborough. He connected with Stephen Starr to start a restaurant in the Barclay, a move that evolved into a formal connection with Starr’s restaurant organization.

In an industry with its share of shady characters and freeloaders, Domb is known as a workaholic and a straight arrow.

Domb rolls into City Council with an eye-catching idea set. Most of his causes are standard urban Democrat. But his methods are fresh.

Domb wants to balance the City and School District budgets without raising tax rates and without going to Harrisburg for an extra ask. We have the money already, he believes; we just don’t collect it.

“My number-one goal is to collect delinquent taxes and, if not collectible, write off those that are not collectible and clean up the books,” he says.

Philly doesn’t collect its taxes. That’s great if you owe taxes but not great if you want City services. A total of $1.6 billion is owed the City, much of it stretching back decades.

Much of this is uncollectible, he concedes. But simple, aggressive measures are proven to pump up tax receipts in other cities, Domb states.

“New York City transfers all delinquent accounts to a trust, which in turn hires servicers to collect them in return for a 2-4% commission,” he said. “It was a program Mayor Michael Bloomberg started. That City went from 87% collected to 99.8%.

“If we don’t collect taxes, we can’t fund our schools properly. We need the Mayor to say: ‘Hire the same team Bloomberg had.’”

Inside this theoretical $1.6 billion, Domb asserts, live hundreds of millions of dollars in hidden collectibles. All it takes is action. Pay 10 law firms to collect the outstanding delinquent BART (business income revenue tax) and wage taxes that on a contingency basis and we may be surprised how much comes in. But also request, if it’s uncollectible, written documentation stating that fact so we can write it off.”

In a recent test of real-estate tax delinquencies, Domb observed, 55% of delinquents paid up on the spot after a threat to seize their properties. Two-fifths of them were out-of-town owners, often in New York.

“Real-estate taxes are a first lien on a property,” Domb pointed out, “as are utility bills. If the City gets aggressive, the banks that own the mortgages will pay up to protect their investment.”

The City is owed $34.5 million in delinquent liquor-by-the-drink taxes. In order to collect this money, said Domb, we could simply threaten to lien liquor licenses that have increased in value today from $60,000 two years ago to $150,000 today. If Philadelphia could obtain permission from the Commonwealth to place a lien on these licenses, Domb predicts licensees would rush to pay up rather than lose the basis for their businesses.

Tens of millions more can be reaped almost at once if we revisit the Actual Value Initiative assessments for commercial property. Center City office and retail space is woefully underpriced, said Domb.

“Commercial real estate must be accurately assessed,” he said, “The skill set of assessing rowhouses is different from assessing commercials. The AVI team didn’t have it.”

Domb estimates the average Center City commercial building is assessed at only one-third of its true value. “Our land values are wrong and need to be adjusted,” he insisted. “I am against any new taxes until we get current tax policy right.”

He may not be elected GPAR president again if he pulls this off. But he says he can live with that.

The city is losing other governmental money through lax marketing of existing government benefits, said Domb.

“Last year, the federal Earned Income Tax Credit left out 40,000 low-income people who didn’t apply, leaving almost $100 million on the table,” Domb said. “Every available City program should be reaching out to this population and ensuring they all sign up.” $100 million in fresh income for poor people; which, for a city rich in poor people, adds up to a lot of economic life. Poor people spend more of what they get than rich people; and more spending boosts the economy even for people who aren’t poor.

Domb’s goal is to lift 100,000 Philadelphians out of poverty and create 100,000 new jobs. Currently around 400,000 residents are poor, the highest rate among all major American cities.

“I’m not just a voice for real estate but a voice for the future of the city. A healthy business community needs a healthy city,” Domb said. “I hope more people like myself step up.”

Domb wants a City Dept. of Technology Relocation similar to what his idol Bloomberg did in New York. “I would have our schools teach coding,” he said.

Every technology job that is created has a multiplier effect of five spin-off jobs, said Domb. That’s the highest multiplier of any job category in an urban environment.

Like most Old Souls, the incoming Councilman wants to bag the wage tax and the corporate net-income tax. It would be ironic if it takes a real-estate millionaire to shift Philadelphia’s tax burden to real estate, which most cities prefer.

Domb is unabashedly pro-growth. “We have a lot of costly social issues; we can’t keep taxing the same people to pay for them. We must bring more people to the city” – middle-class taxpayers who can fund social programs for those in need.

He supports a minimum-wage raise to $10.10. “It takes 40,000 people out of poverty in Philadelphia,” he contested. “So a burger goes up 25 cents….”

Philadelphia should work at thinking globally, he counseled. Businesses should target more than just selling hoagies to each other; they must offer their wares to the world.

Education is the top issue for Philadelphia citizens in 2015. Council President Darrell Clarke asked Domb to tour 26 schools that were being shuttered. Domb called that dystopian ride “terrible, unacceptable.”

Domb is a fan of School District Superintendent William Hite but he said we must push the high-school graduation rate even higher.

“I come from a work ethic,” said Domb. A big piece of his life story that he would pass on to the young is working while you’re still in high school.

Domb’s company works with Cristo Rey Philadelphia HS, a Catholic independent school in Logan most of whose students live in poverty. Every Cristo Rey student spends one day a week in a paid internship with a city company and Allan Domb Real Estate is one of them.

Vocational orientation is a mantra for Domb. As he noted acidly, “48% of college grads are doing jobs that don’t require a college degree.”

Domb should bring a business eye to every branch of City government. On the prison budget, for instance – at $240 million, about 1/8th of every tax dollar – he speculated: “I don’t have the answer but I can pose important questions. In Curran-Fromhold, 31% of prisoners are there because they can’t post bail. Is that the smartest way to spend public money/”

“My goal is to make government as efficient as possible,” said Domb. “Every employee, whether private or public, must value every expenditure and receivable as if it’s their own. As a public servant, taxpayers are like our shareholders.

“My goal is to accomplish things, not to get credit. And the right time to accomplish things is always today.”

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2 Responses to Allan Domb Wants His Council Career To Make Philadelphia Great

  1. I look forward to your fresh voice in Council, Allan. I saw you in Council Jun. 18. We talked about the 10.000 American Flag Resolution. I would like to meet with you to discuss our goals. Congrats, Councilman!

    Jim Jenkins
    November 24, 2015 at 12:13 pm

  2. Just read Allan’s needs & vision for the city of
    Philadelphia. I agree. there is hope.

    Vivian Gilliam
    November 25, 2015 at 9:55 am

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