Proposed Billboard Tax Stirs Up Mixed Reactions

Toronto city council is set to debate The New Sign Regulation and Revenue Strategy on Monday. Photo by Omar Mosleh.

You see them everywhere you go.

From above your favourite restaurant to the street on your way to work. You may even find one outside your window right now. Throughout the city of Toronto, billboards are an inescapable sight.

But soon, a portion of the revenue these advertisements generate may go towards funding arts initiatives and city beautification in Toronto.

The proposed bylaw, the New Sign Regulation and Revenue Strategy for the City of Toronto, would charge a tax on all billboards and sign advertisements in the city. It would consist of 3 to 7 per cent of the industry’s gross annual revenue.

The city says approximately $10.4 million would be raised annually. Of that, $1.8 million would go towards bylaw enforcement, with the remainder going towards city beautification and arts and culture projects. Fees would vary depending on the size, type, and gross revenue of the sign.

Devon Ostrom is co-founder of Beautiful City, one of many advocacy groups that have been lobbying city council for a billboard tax since 2003. A curator for the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Royal Ontario Museum, he is passionate about the issue and has been involved since day one. He says the tax would transform the city for the better.

“It’s going to be a lot more of an expressive and vibrant city,” he said. “There will be a greater equity in terms of who has access to public space, and who has the ability to express themselves in public space.”

He says that while Toronto overall has been fairly supportive of arts projects, the funding is not sufficient.

“Toronto has a reputation as a city that can do really amazing things culturally, but there’s still a serious resource problem,” Ostrom said.

City councillors such as Joe Mihevc, of Ward 21 St. Paul’s West, have been trying to fix that perceived problem by vigorously supporting the proposed tax. He said Torontonians have shown their support, citing an Environics poll that says 70 per cent of residents surveyed agreed with the bylaw.

“The vast majority of Torontonians say if the billboards are taxed and that money goes towards public art and beautifying public spaces, they’re very supportive of that,” he said.

But not everyone is in support of the new tax. Mihevc says the idea has faced fierce opposition from the advertising industry, which has hired lobbyists to try to convince city hall that the by-law is a bad idea.

“This debate really is about the money,” he said. “I am so disappointed in the industry and their lobbyists, who’ve been scouring city hall for the last week… I can’t believe how much energy they’re putting into this.”

One of those opposed to the by-law is Rosanne Caron, president of the Out-of-Home Marketing Association of Canada. She says the tax is far too high, and that the numbers “just don’t add up.”

“The city is basically putting in an unfair and punitive tax that will threaten the survival of our industry,” she said. “We should all be concerned about that because it contributes to Toronto’s economy.”

According to Caron, the by-law would have an impact on 800 direct jobs and thousands more indirectly. She said it would also affect small businesses that rely on income from companies that place billboards on their property.

Caron said outdoor advertisers pay an annual average of around $36.8 million to the city to place billboards on public property. She said the problem is not the by-law itself, but the level of taxation.

“There hasn’t been any economic rationale provided by the city for the level of taxation…It’s totally unrealistic.”

She says the $10.4 million tax is 21 per cent higher than the $8.6 million profit the industry makes annually. But some, such as Councillor Howard Moscoe, of Ward 15 Eglinton-Lawrence, have disputed the numbers, saying the profit the industry reaps annually is actually much higher.

“If you believe the sign industry will be bankrupt by this by-law, you believe in the tooth fairy,” he said.

Moscoe was insistent on the idea that billboards provide little public benefit.

“The signs are there, and they’re there, and they’re there, and they offer nothing in return,” he said. “This tax at least offers us something in return that we can apply to the community, and there’s no more appropriate place to put some of this money than for beautification of this city.”

Ward 16 Eglinton-Lawrence Councillor Karen Stintz countered Moscoe by saying signs contribute something to the city by aiding non-profit groups such The United Way and Canadian Women’s Foundation with free advertising.

“They do perform a function…it’s not like the sign industry is just taking, they are giving back,” she said. “Our issue is that we want them to give back to our specific initiative. The question is what is fair?”

While what is fair has yet to be determined, advocates of the by-law feel that only good can come of it. But even if the by-law passes, the exact allocation of funds will not be determined until the 2010 budget process is underway in the spring.

And although not everyone agrees on how much funding should be put towards city beautification, for some people like Ostrom, that in itself is the beauty of it.

“One of the things about beauty is that it’s quite a subjective idea,” he said. “To me, having a more democratic idea about what constitutes public space, is beautiful.”


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