Billboard tax debate

Public space activist Dave Meslin wrote an interesting article in NOW magazine this week about the issue of taxing advertising billboards.

The article was prompted by the recent City of Toronto Act, which enables the city to levy such a tax, and a proposal known as the “Beautiful City Billboard Tax,” which advocates charging an annual fee for billboards and channelling the money to local arts projects through the Toronto Arts Council.

Meslin argues that it is premature to implement such a tax as, in the City’s current cash-strapped state, it would be an incentive to increase the number of billboards in order to generate revenue. He argues that, first, the city needs to implement a series of measures to better control billboards, including a yearly licencing system that allows for revocation.

I’m inclined to agree with Meslin, but others at Spacing are more sympathetic to the Beautiful City Billboard Tax proposal, suggesting that the potential revenue is too marginal to be a real incentive to increase the number of billboards. I’d be interested to hear what our readers think.

photo by Kevin Steele

27 comments

  1. The idea is kind of a non-starter for me: if the money is minimal, it won’t be a huge burden to the ad companies nor a huge boon to the City. If it turns out to be profitable, there actually will be an incentive to increase the amount of outdoor ads.

    Unless politicians are actually getting money from the ad companies (which some are), there is really no incentive for a councillor to even allow billboards in their ward, period. There are not really that enough landowner-voters to piss off by denying them billboard revenue.

    I have to agree with Mez on this one, it’s a nice idea but what will it accomplish?

  2. The same point can be made about the proposed land transfer tax – why should the city help keep housing affordable when high house prices rake in cash for them?

  3. I think if anyone has to be targeted, it has to be the landowners. Advertising companies make too much money on these ads for it to be anything but a minor annoyance. Now, if the property owner now was faced with extra land taxes or something of the sort, they might just refrain from accepting a deal to put a sign on their roof.

    It seems to be some landowners are guilty of drawing some lines on their property, throwing up some advertising and calling it a parking lot, while they sit back and let the money roll in. Or worse yet, empty tracts of land that are sold off to billboard advertisers.

    Having businesses earn their money by actually running a business and being competitive is only good for the city by encouraging -actual- development of the land and improvement of existing facilities.

  4. Not sure what your transfer tax point is. The City has no ability to govern house costs overall. The LTT is a % and already exists.

  5. Why not just charge more for the existing billboards?

    Remember the argument about why video ads in the subway were required?

    “Oh, the TTC is SO strapped for cash! Without video ads, we WILL have to increase the ride price…”

    Video ads went in and the ride price went through the roof, the biggest increase in years.

    Maybe the increase in ticket prices was actually funding the video screens? 🙂

  6. Am I missing something? If so many billboards today are illegal, a a billboard tax seems like a very effective tool in eliminating those and reducing the amount of advertising.

    Make all third-party billboards, permitted or not, liable for the tax. Require them to provide their permit info when paying the tax. Those that don’t have a permit are basically reporting their own violation to the city. Those that don’t file, when found, are on the hook for a lot more (thanks to back taxes, which could have hefty failure-to-file penalties). Plus, the tax could provide more funding for staff dedicated to billboard enforcement.

  7. The amount of money might seem minimal in the context of the city’s multi-billion dollar budget, but it’s not minimal in the context of a starving artist’s income. What this means is that artists will be turned into advocates for billboards. The billboard companies will recruit artists to make deputations at Community Council saying “if you take this billboard down, I’ll lose my $2,000 grant to make a huge plaster squirrel.”

    I’ve seen this happen before. TriBar did it with the suicide barrier, and OneStop did it with non-profits who were promised ad-time on their TTC tv screens.

  8. If it turns out to be profitable, there actually will be an incentive to increase the amount of outdoor ads.

    This is the problem with tax-bads-not-goods, generally. As Rami Tabello demonstrates, a good first step would be enforcing the existing bylaws.

  9. Taxing billboards is a bad idea – as the industry would think that it has paid to occupy public space. This is a privilege. Advertising is simply visual pollution and promotes consumerism.

  10. IllegalSigns.ca supports the BCBF initiative. There are safeguards the City can put into place to prevent the billboard tax from affecting the planning process. It is important for the City to earn revenue to pay for enforcement and to counter the visual effect of commercial speech dominating the streetscape to allocating funds to artists.

  11. I think the tax will produce very minimal revenue generation and any significant tax would be legally challenged. I don’t mind it helping fund arts, but it can’t be used as a reason to increase ad content on the street and should be seen as a bonus to arts funding, not a permanent revenue stream.

    It is not in the best interest of the city to let billboards flourish simply because they’re going to be receiving lots of money thru the street furniture program (we’ll see if that happens). The city *needs* to reduce billboards so that the value of ads placed on the street furniture goes up. Less competing ads means less distraction from the where the city can generate the most money: street furniture.

    It is possible to cap or limit billboards while helping public art funding increase. I will say the City does not have a successful record of dealing with the outdoor ad industry but there is *finally* an acknowledgment by staff and some on council that billboards are an excessive/useless blight on the city’s landscape. They see street furniture differently becuz there is a secondary function to the ads (obviously I don’t like this model but I understand their perspective).

    I think Mez’s concerns are very valid and he has absolutely no confidence in council or staff to do the right things for the city. And I sympathize with him on this. We’ve debated this topic before in backyards late at night. Its not that I think he’s wrong on this — I just see the City’s motivation in a different light. I never want Mez to be wrong, and he rarely is, but I do hope he is on this one.

  12. I think the tax will produce very minimal revenue generation and any significant tax would be legally challenged.

    On what basis do you make these statements?

  13. Minimal money generated based on a 7-billion dollar budget. Especially if there is a continuation of illegal billboards. They have to reign them in first before taxing them. That’s where this tax will sink or swim.
    I think there’d be a legal challenge becuz of the pattern of any multi-national challenging municipalities that get in the way of them earning money. If they are going to threaten activists with lawsuits they will certainly take a city to court if if means millions dollars not going into the pockets of the industry.

  14. Here in Auckland, NZ, the Council has proposed a draft bylaw that would restrict where billboards could be put up.

    The signs and billboards industry put up a huge stink, and complained that they had property rights, and that they should be compensated if Council restricted billboards.

    In my submission to Council I said that if indeed that they had property rights, and that if those property rights were violated, then yes, compensation is payable. And if this were the case, then those property rights can be taxed to offset the damage they do. The billboard industry couldn’t have their cake and eat it as well.

    Of course, they don’t have property rights – merely a permit to put up a billboard of a certain size in a certain location.

    So taxing billboards establishes property rights – one would need to be careful if one wanted this to occur. It would be simpler to restrict billboards and enforce a restrictive bylaw permitting system.

  15. “Why not just charge more for the existing billboards?”

    The city doesn’t get ANY money from existing billboards.

  16. Hya — this is my response. Dave and I have been talking and he agrees that it was an op-ed piece rather than news…

    RE: “No so fast on billboard tax” (NOW Toronto, May 10th) ( http://www.nowtoronto.com/issues/2007-05-10/news_story.php )

    ‘Enough Ugly to Go Around’

    I am not sure, but I think David might be talking about the BCBF proposal that was put forward in 2002-2005?

    The BCBF as now proposed, would see a minimum of six million dollars gathered from annual permit fee. Paid by billboard advertisers, revenue would be directed though the Toronto Arts Council into public art — with a priority put on marginalized communities and youth art. According to a Pollara poll, only 15% of Torontonians are against such a fee.

    Objectives of the Beautiful City Billboard Fee include:
    – Urban beautification & employment for artists
    – More funding for tracking & policing billboard advertisers
    – Helping move Toronto towards a pedestrian focused aesthetic
    – Promoting community ownership of public spaces
    – Diversifying access to public communication

    The conclusion that we came to after consultations with advocacy groups is that it would be impossible for the BCBF (Beautiful City Billboard Fee) to be implemented unless better tools for managing billboards are developed. Revenue collection for more public art would be nigh-impossible unless there is significantly bolstered tracking and policing of 3rd party advertising in Toronto.

    Therefore, one of our objectives is increased funding for tracking and policing billboards (see postcard campaign: http://www.them.ca/postcard.pdf
    – 500 KB ). Additionally, if you look at our guiding document — endorsed by
    27 grassroots to established organizations — we specifically say that the majority of Torontonians want fewer billboards and back this with Pollara polls. ( Available at http://bcbf.them.ca )

    The guiding document goes on to say that we need: “the adoption of a user fee that is dedicated to giving Municipal Licensing and Standards the proper resources to balance the needs of the industry within the wider community.
    This would include an office that has the full capacity to track, monitor and control outdoor advertising. Accordingly, bylaw enforcement officers who can levy fines for infractions and have the ability to remove consistently illegal encroachment. Responsibility will also be exercised by meeting the wishes of the majority for fewer billboards halfway by accepting a cap on the number and total square footage of third-party outdoor advertisements.”

    Regarding the scenario where Councilors are rubber stamping billboards — this is next to impossible under the structure we are proposing where all disbursements are carried out by an arms-length body. Any incentives within individual wards for new billboards have also been removed and replaced by disbursements across all wards based on economic need. Furthermore, David stretches to state that “there is no doubt a billboard tax would mean more signage over time.” Currently, one economics professor and one research centre devoted to dedicated taxes have stated the opposite. Even the consultants report commissioned by the city says that a tax at 1/2 to 1/3 level that we are proposing would result in the removal of some less profitable billboards.

    In summary, there is no reason why more art, diversified access to communication in public spaces, a more pedestrian focused aesthetic and fewer billboards with better controls can’t happen in lockstep — or a better as a package deal. Indeed, I can’t think of a Toronto bylaw that has ever looked sexier… As always, I value David’s criticisms and expertise tremendously. We should be working together on this — obviously there is enough ugly to go around!

    Best,

    Devon Ostrom

    ***********************
    curator – them.ca
    coordinator – BCBF Alliance

    = em: devon@them.ca
    = wb: http://www.them.ca
    = wb: http://bcbf.them.ca
    = ph: (416) 925 9109
    = mb: (647) 267 4221
    ***********************

  17. p.s. the left never accomplishes anything because they are always too busy fighting each-other.

    😛

  18. Mez: “if you take this billboard down, I’ll lose my $2,000 grant to make a huge plaster squirrel.”

    That might make some sense if individual billboards were directly linked to individual art pieces. How come you don’t waste your time bothering CONTACT — if you are worried about artists giving political capital to advertisers that is where I would start.

    *sarcasm*

  19. “the left never accomplishes anything because they are always too busy fighting each-other.”

    It’s hardly the only reason, but it’s certainly true. On the other hand, one could argue that the “left” benefits from internal criticism and the resulting discussion and evolution of ideas, and that that’s one of the characteristics that distinguishes it from the “right.” As much as I hate the “left’s” tendency to cannibalize itself, I hate the opposing tendency towards hegemony even more. For example, I despise the strong mayor system for the way it centralizes the ideology of an individual (however supposedly “progressive” he is) and discourages criticism from even those within his inner circle, lest they appear to be disloyal.

    There’s never been any question, Devon, that we’re working towards the same things (and you certainly have an impressive list of endorsements), but it’s the opinion of the TPSC that Council will not turn down money. I asked Councillor Carroll, the Budget Chief, point blank how much one would have to pay to get around the City’s bylaws. The answer: $13 million. I greatly appreciate her honesty, but it shows that the City, its laws, its legal institutions, its visual environment, and its public space are most certainly on the table if someone (or some entity) has deep enough pockets.

    Tying revenue to billboards would be “street furniture” all over again, but in the sky — “sky furniture,” if you will. No blank space would be safe if Councillor De Baeremaeker could argue that putting up an ad would mean the difference between kids getting soccer balls or not.

    I support billboards being taxed or charged money only in order to cover the costs of administrating, maintaining, and enforcing a licensing system. Only after such a system — and an apolitical approval process — has been entrenched would I trust City Council to levy additional fees.

    You’ve already covered most of the bases in your proposal, but there are still some serious flaws. Just going by your letter to the editors:

    “…the adoption of a user fee that is dedicated to giving Municipal Licensing and Standards the proper resources to balance the needs of the industry within the wider community.”

    I’m not sure why the “needs of the industry” have to be taken into account when trying to squeeze them for as much as you can get. That seems to be something of a contradiction. Anything to which the billboard companies would agree would be something which (while seeming at first like reasonable limits) would greatly benefit them in the long run. See Rami’s article about the 1992 liberalization of the signs bylaw under the pretext of “sign control”: http://illegalsigns.ca/?p=2330

    “Responsibility will also be exercised by meeting the wishes of the majority for fewer billboards halfway by accepting a cap on the number and total square footage of third-party outdoor advertisements.”

    As Rami has pointed out, the advertisers would love this. There is already a very high rate of attrition in the outdoor advertising industry, due to condo development on or adjacent to sites that have (or had) billboards. Any cap would only serve to guarantee the companies a specific market — for every billboard that comes down due to “natural causes,” they’d be allowed to put up another one elsewhere.

    “Even the consultants report commissioned by the city says that a tax at 1/2 to 1/3 level that we are proposing would result in the removal of some less profitable billboards.”

    Enforcement of the current bylaws would result in the removal of some or most of all billboards, including the less profitable ones. In fact, the “less profitable billboards” are the least of the problem, as they are by definition the least obstrusive. There’s also no doubt in my mind that outdoor advertisers would happily remove the less profitable billboards if it meant that they got to legalize their moneymaking ones.

    “Any incentives within individual wards for new billboards have also been removed and replaced by disbursements across all wards based on economic need.”

    “That might make some sense if individual billboards were directly linked to individual art pieces.”

    That just means that any advertiser could shuffle artists from Malvern or Regent Park out to Community Council to plead on behalf of a billboard anywhere in the city; direct links wouldn’t be necessary.

    “How come you don’t waste your time bothering CONTACT — if you are worried about artists giving political capital to advertisers that is where I would start.”

    I know you’re joking, but I actually tried that…

  20. RE: “one could argue that the “left” benefits from internal criticism and the resulting discussion and evolution of ideas, and that that’s one of the characteristics that distinguishes it from the “right.” As much as I hate the “left’s” tendency to cannibalize itself, I hate the opposing tendency towards hegemony even more.”

    Totally agreed. However, we made every attempt to engage public interest / billboard advocates about what we were doing in drafting the new guiding document. Why David would choose to publicly react to a pre-consultation version smacks (and reeks) of something toxic. Furthermore — rather than strengthening the wieght of people who want fewer billboards, right now the consultants report, general opinion (and probably stakeholder scan) says we are split in opinion — add to that mix the power of the signage lobby and you have a bureaucracy that is paralyzed since they can’t make anyone happy — when in reality we both want fewer billboards. You might be working on it on a case by case level — we are working at it on a systemic and systematic level. No one is better or worse. Why do you think we would put serious resources into a public opinion poll exploring taste for fewer billboards?

    RE: “I support billboards being taxed or charged money only in order to cover the costs of administrating, maintaining, and enforcing a licensing system. Only after such a system — and an apolitical approval process — has been entrenched would I trust City Council to levy additional fees.”

    You mean like making sure the administration have the correct resources to carry out their job rather than something like 8 people? (see our objectives.) Also — as I have said before disbursements are being carried out by an arms length apolitical body (the TAC). We know that the BCBF would not work unless there is better billboard tracking and policing — that is why we are pushing for it.

    Re: the “needs of the industry”

    Whether you like it or not sometimes you have to use language like this in policy formation so you just don’t beat your head against the wall. The industry does have needs and more power that you or I. Organizational inertia says that you can ride a beast of this size and steer it a bit — but present a real threat / stand in front and you will be flattened.

    Re: “Any cap would only serve to guarantee the companies a specific market — for every billboard that comes down due to “natural causes,” they’d be allowed to put up another one elsewhere.”

    Well I don’t know — a little while ago everybody was calling for a cap. I inquired and the municipal actors said it was a valid option. I think you guys need to sit down and figure out a shared policy document cause right now it seems fickle and all over the place. You will just annoy any prospective allies and be wildly lashing out rather than focusing your power, IMO.

    re: “That just means that any advertiser could shuffle artists from Malvern or Regent Park out to Community Council to plead on behalf of a billboard anywhere in the city; direct links wouldn’t be necessary.”

    I think this is nonsense or I don’t understand or you have not really read the guiding document see: http://bcbf.them.ca

    I would like to believe any real artists would not do this as the cost to their reputation and future prospects would be too great. Especially with vigilant people like you around. I do believe that there were some artists that were supportive of tobbacco companies when funding was restricted and tobbaco billboards were banned. Despite all the high-priced media traning it did nothing though (beyond messing up thier long term prospects / ability to sleep at night) since they were obvious pawns / bought souls. I dunno — if this was a real concern you are all serious about then we could ask the TAC if there could be a mechanism where this would be forbidden with accepting public art monies?

  21. “I think you guys need to sit down and figure out a shared policy document cause right now it seems fickle and all over the place.”

    You are dead on. So far it’s been conversations here and there between myself, Mez, Alison, and Rami.

    The closest thing we have to a collaboratively-produced policy is Mez’s Now article (since he consulted with us when writing it), but it got rewritten at the last moment, and I agree that parts of it are confused — certainly the first sentence makes no sense to anyone who has been following the issue or the City’s discussions of its new “revenue tools.”

    The “street furniture” campaign will probably be going on hiatus after next week, so I may finally have time to jump through whatever hoops are necessary to initiate a new campaign on the signs bylaw re-write, something we’ve been talking about doing since before I joined the group two years ago.

  22. I should note, though, that the TPSC doesn’t have an official position on this. Mez is resistant to the BCBF, but he’s no longer with the group. Alison and I share his feelings, but I should clarify that we only speak as individuals or in our capacities as coordinators of specific (related) campaigns and not on behalf of the group at large.

  23. Well if you need some help I am there (biased of course) It does not have to be much. Things that would be useful to me and at the policy level would be a list like:

    We are uncomfortable with the BCBF because of these reasons
    1. (point + rationale / research…)
    2.
    3.
    4.

    We will fight the billboard tax if:
    1.
    2.
    3.
    4.

    We will support the billboard tax if:
    1.
    2.
    3.
    4.

    Of course you know how to do this aleady and collectively and individually you have an amazing amount of specialization here. Try to focus on the minimum that you can all agree to and then build from there. Having a policy / guiding document is a pain in the ass sometimes with all the revisions but it helps keep conflict productive and focused on the task.

  24. ———————————————-
    /// BEAUTIFUL CITY BILLBOARD FEE PETITION ///
    ———————————————-

    This proposal would see a 60% increase in Toronto Arts Council funding through a tax on billboards. The BCBF actively supports better regulation of billboards as well as democratizing access to communication in public space.

    [ http://www.them.ca/bcbfpetition.asp ]

    Find out more info and sign the quick BCBF petition by following the link above. Please circulate this link on your member lists, post it on your blogs, feeds, network pages and websites. If you need a banner please see the home page of them.ca or please ask devon@them.ca if you need a smaller one.

    /// PLEASE FORWARD, POST & SIGN ///
    ———————————————-

  25. // Environics Poll Indicates 8/10 Voters Want Illegal Billboards Removed & Increased Fines, 7/10 Want a Reduction in General //

    In the run-up to the new billboard bylaw, an Environics survey commissioned by the BCBF Alliance indicates that a strong majority of Torontonians support enhanced protections for pubic space.

    78% of the general population and 8/10 of municipal voters support “the city removing billboards that violate city bylaws and implementing fines to a level that discourages future violations.” (For more information on illegal billboards please visit http://www.illegalsigns.ca)

    68% of the general population and 7/10 of municipal voters are in support of “the city working to reduce billboards and corporate posters in general.” This result clearly positions civic space advocates as a public interest group — rather than treatment or portrayal as a fringe, or special interest.

    The survey was limited to people living in the City of Toronto and has an actionable margin of error at +/- 6.7% (19/20).

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