Despite what you hear from Negadelphians, Philadelphia actually is in good shape, poised — dare we say it? — to be great. So says freshman Councilman Allan Domb. We just need to do three things, he says.
Known as the Condo King of Philadelphia before winning an at-large Council seat in 2015, Domb is shaped by business experience and by his sense of dollars and cents. He calls his Council job and his real estate job "hobbies. You know why I say that? Because I enjoy them both."
Our conversation, in his less-than-elegant third-floor City Hall office, took place against the backdrop of the $395-million contract with teachers, committing money the city does not have. Domb, 62, has ideas about where to find it, but first he lists three government goals for the next five years:
"One, take 100,000 out of poverty.
"Two, create 100,000 new jobs.
"Three, bring 100,000 new residents to the city," he says, as if plucking daisy petals.
"What we need to do is expand our base, bring more people into the store to pay for the overhead," which is high in a unionized city government.
The goals are interconnected.
Let's start with jobs. He offers a four-letter word: Tech.
"In the last 14 years," he says, quoting the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, "25 percent of the net new job growth created in this region was in technology," joining eds and meds as economic contributors.
For a region with slow job growth, I am told by Josh Sevin, acting executive director of the league, the ballooning of tech sector jobs is impressive.
More impressive is that the average tech job pays $39,000 more than comparable jobs in other industries, says Domb. Many of Philadelphia's rising tide of Millennials, who help drive the real estate building boom, are techies.
Some of the cranes atop new buildings look down on the broken spirits of 400,000 people living in poverty, a 26 percent poverty rate larger than any other big city. Can they be connected with tech jobs?
"One out of three jobs in tech don't require a college degree," says Domb, which leads him to a Philadelphia briar patch — education.
"Why are we not teaching [computer] coding in grades 9-12 in high school instead of geometry or calculus or algebra?" Domb asks. "We are creating tech jobs, but we are not training our kids for those jobs." Domb donates his city salary to the schools — last year 23 schools each received a check for $2,500 after-tax dollars.
Citing the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Domb says that in March "Philadelphia had the third highest job creation of any city in the nation. Our future is in technology."
If more tech takes root here, more jobs will blossom here, more people will come here, growing the population and the tax base.
Now we circle back to poverty and arrive at Domb's pet cause — the earned income tax credit, a federal program that helps low-income wage earners, especially those with children. If not a magic bullet, it's at least a potent pellet.
Domb estimates that 40,000 Philadelphians in poverty would qualify for a minimum annual $2,500 payment. "We keep leaving $100 million in earned income tax credit dollars in Washington," he fumes. "This is huge money." (Applications can be found at IRS.gov)
Finally, we return to the $395 million that Philly needs for the teachers.
We don't need new taxes, says Domb, we need to collect old taxes.
"When we have approximately $490 million of delinquent real estate taxes, that is a lot of money the school district is not receiving," says Domb. The district gets 55 percent and the city 45 percent of the real estate tax.
If Philadelphia had a more efficient collection program, he says, "we could have a one-time collection of between $90 million and $120 million and a potential annual collection of $25 million to $40 million more than we currently receive."
Easier said than done? A lot of that money is owed by people who can't afford to pay, I was told in a previous conversation with former Mayor John Street.
There's a reduced-payment program for people who genuinely can't afford to pay, says Domb, who believes past collections prove a lot of deadbeats out there can pay, but don't.
Government should go after them, just as a business would, he believes, even if the business seems like a hobby.