Opponents of Philadelphia’s 10-year tax abatement filed an ethics complaint Wednesday against City Councilman Allan Domb, a real estate broker and developer who owns numerous properties across the city.
The Philadelphia Tenants Union and 215 People’s Alliance argue that Domb’s real estate businesses present a conflict of interest when it comes to the 10-year property tax abatement.
“This is not a personal attack on Allan Domb,” said Chenjerai Kumanyika, an activist with 215 People’s Alliance. “We are saying he has a vested financial interest in many properties that benefit from the abatement, through his brokerage, through his development, through his management.”
In response, Domb quickly released a statement refuting a conflict of interest, along with an advisory opinion from the Board of Ethics, dated Monday. Domb asked the Ethics Board to clarify whether his three current applications for the abatement would preclude him from voting on any of the reform bills now under consideration by City Council.
The Ethics Board’s general counsel, Michael Cooke, wrote that Domb could vote on the bills because all of them relate only to affect future abatments, so there would be no direct impact on his prior applications.
“The Board of Ethics confirmed there is no conflict of interest under the Philadelphia Ethics Code for my ability to take official action on legislation related to tax abatements,” Domb said in a statement issued Wednesday.
Domb’s communications manager, Erin Dwyer, said that the Pennsylvania state ethics code also contradicts the activist's claims. Conflict-of-interest in the state code does not cover actions that affect “to the same degree...a subclass consisting of an industry, occupation, or other group which includes the public official.”
But the 215 People’s Alliance says their complaint extends beyond any particular abatement applications. The group argued in its filing that abatement dramatically shapes the real estate industry’s fortunes in Philadelphia and as a property owner and developer with a “pattern of use” of the abatement, Domb’s financial interests are unavoidably entangled in it. The group released a report last month that said buildings represented by Domb’s brokerage firm received $12.3 million in abatements in 2018. Buildings Domb personally owns received $541,000 in abatments between 2008 and 2019, it said. Domb refuted both figures and said they overstated how much he has benefited from the tax break.
Councilman Domb has faced scrutiny over his role in the real estate industry before. He has recused himself on at least one occasion in the last year, relating to a bill that many building owners saw as an onerous addition to the city’s fire code.
David Thornburg, president of the good government group Committee of 70, says he does not believe Domb is flouting current conflict of interest standards. But he says the possibility of this kind of conflict is exactly why the Committee of 70 doesn’t believe Councilmembers should be able to hold two jobs. (Domb donates his council salary to the Philadelphia School District.)
“The double dipping of Councilmembers with outside employment and a council income has always been a concern of the Committee of 70, and this is a reminder of why it should be a concern,” said Thornburgh. “It definitely merits further scrutiny to see if we can lessen those potential conflicts, but in this case my interpretation as a non-lawyer is that [current regulation] doesn’t suggest there is a conflict of interest.”
Domb faces reelection this year in a crowded at-large City Council race. When asked about the timing of the ethics complaint, 215 People’s Alliance stated that they have been fighting the abatement for years and the release isn’t related to the election, although they have endorsed some of Domb’s competitors for at-large seats.The Philadelphia Tenants Union does not endorse political candidates.
“We definitely would like to see the tax abatement ended and we think the people making those decisions shouldn't be the people who have a vested interest,” said David Thompson, an organizer with the tenants’ union.