After the St. Clair Right of Way was approved, Toronto Environmental Alliance activist Gord Perks told me that nothing worth doing at City Hall takes less than five years. In light of that wisdom, the seven years it has taken to get a billboard tax into City Council’s committee process seems about right.
On Wednesday, Planning and Growth Management committee will finally consider a tax on billboards and a new signs by-law that makes it harder to get a new billboard approved in most neighbourhoods while ramping up the fines on illegal billboards to make them unprofitable.
The tax and by-law are being advocated for by the umbrella group Beautiful City Alliance, which includes artists and public space activists that range from the Scarborough Arts Council and the Art Gallery of Ontario to IllegalSigns.ca and Toronto Public Space Committee. (Spacing is also an endorser of Beautiful City, and I am personally involved in the campaign.)
While the by-law and tax provisions are good but not great, there are some important changes that need to be made by the Planning and Growth Management committee when it considers the issue at its meeting this Wednesday. While John Lorinc made some suggestions on Spacing Toronto this morning, the Beautiful City Alliance disagrees with them because his main proposal (BMX/skateboard infrastructure) could, in fact, be accommodated in Beautiful City’s proposal without limiting access to arts funding for youth, if that’s what youth prefer. Plus, there are two vital issues that need to be addressed to ensure any new programs or infrastructure are funded.
Most importantly, City staff have proposed that revenue from the billboard tax â€œoffsetâ€ (by which they mean displace) the money currently in the City budget for culture, effectively meaning that all proceeds from the billboard tax will go into general revenues. This would fly in the face of what the more than 50 organizations and 3,000 people who have signed onto the Beautiful City campaign are asking for: that the tax money go to improving our city, not maintaining the status quo. The Alliance believes that sorting out the issue of where funds are allocated should be left to City Council’s operating budget approval process.
After ensuring that this billboard tax has the desired impact on Toronto’s neighbourhoods, the Alliance will seek to have the projected revenue from the tax increase from $11 million to $18 million. When last projected by City staff, it appeared as though revenues from the tax would be at least $18 million, and possibly as high as $56 million. Following a delay in the approvals of this tax and by-law that was orchestrated by the outdoor advertising industry, the tax is suddenly down to $11 million. At $18 million, the City could achieve what the thousands of Beautiful City supporters are seeking: 50% increase to Toronto’s arts and culture budget; $300,000 per year for youth arts and culture programming in Toronto’s 13 priority neighbourhoods; $100,000 for each ward for local beautification projects; and 17 new by-law officers to adequately enforce the new signs by-law.
The final hurdles in this seven-year campaign won’t be easy to jump. A murder of lobbyists hired by the outdoor ad industry is registered to influence councillors and reports are filtering in that they are stalking the halls outside city councillors’ offices just waiting to bend ears and twist arms. The only way to overcome the power of big money lobbyists is to continue to show how much public support there is for a new by-law and tax. So I urge those who believe that a billboard tax is right for Toronto to set aside any nitpicking and focus on the task at hand. After seven years of developing a campaign with broad support, it’s time, as they say, to dance with the one that â€˜brung you.
Come out to Wednesday’s Planning and Growth Management meeting in Toronto City Hall’s Committee Room 1 to show your support, and if you would like to have your voice heard, register to depute on the issue or send the committee a letter.