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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Billboard tax and signs by-law face final hurdles

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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 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 “offset” (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 ‘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.

Photograph by LexnGer.



  1. As a concerned citizen I encourage people to register to fit this unwarranted and wasteful tax.

  2. strongly endorses the new signs by-law and the Billboard Tax. This is what we’ve been waiting for.

  3. Murders are for crows, not lobbyists.

  4. I’d say there’s some basis for comparing lobbyists to crows: scavengers, gather in ominous packs, make loud, unpleasant and insistent noises. But crows are remarkably intelligent, so the comparison may not be perfectly apt. Maybe it would be good to come up with a collective noun specific to lobbyists. A babble of lobbyists, perhaps?

  5. The city is broke! If anything the Beautiful City Project will see a 5% budget cut. Just like everything else!

  6. Colin, I don’t understand what your comment means. You seem to be at once advocating and condemning said tax.

    Also, I think the use of the term “murder” was very apposite, as well as funny.

  7. Murder was me being cheeky. There are some disgraceful lobbyists and others who acquit themselves with integrity. While I happen to think there are more of the former than the latter, I don’t have a fundamental problem with someone who makes a living assisting people through government processes. But given the industry’s track record, more regulation and oversight is warranted.

    Regardless, the outdoor advertising industry has as many lobbyists at its disposal as it needs for all the research, communication and government relations work needed to make their point at city hall. It’s certainly an advantage since Beautiful City doesn’t have the resources to compete dollar for dollar or even at 10 cents on the dollar. But in having a real, broad base of supporters who believe in the cause without being paid to think that way, Beautiful City is confident that it can convince city hall to do what’s right.

  8. I hope that the tax goes into general revenue like the motor tax did (given the infrastructure backlog there was an equally good case for ringfencing there but the Mayor refused to hear it), but if it doesn’t it would almost entirely offset all TTC revenue from advertising – so there’s an option there if we wanted to get rid of TTC ads.

  9. Hmm Mark, not so sure about that. During the revenue tools consultations most of the taxes were tied to policy objectives… also there have been significant increases to the identified areas.

  10. @devon –

    “During the revenue tools consultations most of the taxes were tied to policy objectives…”

    Can you expand on that? That is not my recollection, and certainly not in respect of the MVT which I specified above. Pennechetti said ringfencing of MVT could be done in theory but only if Council so decided – it could not simply be promised at a meeting.

    “also there have been significant increases to the identified areas.”

    I’m not sure what you mean by “increases to the specified areas” – budget increases? and to what areas?

  11. Boyaaa!

    I sat through all 4 2006 revenue tools consultations across the city. When the tools were first shown alot were aligned with specific objectives… I have the Ppt somewhere in my files…i.e. congestion charge to pay for environmental objectives, road maintainence, transit etc. Apparently the amount devoted to road maintaince has gone up and transit has gone up…the environment has been a huge priority with this admin.