Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Ontario court approves Toronto billboard tax

Not only are many of Toronto’s billboards irritating, they’re illegal. So no one was surprised that the companies responsible for them were less than enthusiastic when council opted to tax their signs.

That was back in 2009. The industry responded by suing the city and won the first round. Then on Monday, in a major ruling, the Ontario Court of Appeal overturned the original decision in favour of Toronto.

The city, which stipulated that the revenues would go to the arts, stands to collect upwards of $10 million annually from the billboard tax.

Though the industry can appeal the decision to the Supreme Court, it seems the free lunch is over. About time, too. These companies have flouted the city for years, deliberately breaking laws and taking advantage of every legal technicality.

“The city implemented the tax to punish the industry for its illegal activities,” explains veteran anti-billboard activist, Rami Tabello. “Council felt the billboard industry was not respecting its wishes. The industry has been disingenuous from the beginning.”

Tabello estimates there are more than 3,000 billboards in Toronto, 20 to 30 per cent of them illegal. That puts the number of outlaw signs between 600 and 900.

Most are downtown, where they’re most profitable. In Councillor Adam Vaughan’s ward (Ward 20, Trinity-Spadina), for example, 22 billboard sites have disappeared because of new buildings (condos), 16 illegal signs have been removed and 44 remain.

Keeping in mind how bad billboards are for property values, the impact could be significant. According to a study done last year in Philadelphia, “Using 2010 sale price data, and taking into account adjacent amenities such as libraries and parks, residential real estate within 500 feet of a billboard is $30,826 less valuable.”

In the meantime, the Toronto District School Board is trying to determine what its advertising policy should be. The answer, of course, is that none should be allowed. But at a time of civic impoverishment, it’s hard to resist the pressure.

Already, council has enabled Astral Media through its street furniture program to clutter the sidewalks with poorly designed and intrusive advertising signs. And by now most of us have grown accustomed to seeing TTC subway stations remade in the image of some corporate advertising campaign or other.

This selling of the city for the benefit of strictly private interests comes about because of two factors, (a) space in the city is valuable and (b) the city is too poor to turn down the offers. This contradictory condition — public poverty and private wealth — is the backdrop to many such decisions the city must take.

Scarborough Councillor Gary Crawford argues that the justification for billboard taxes lies in using the money to support arts and culture in Toronto, as council originally envisaged.

“We need to maximize the billboard tax to support the arts,” Crawford says. “A dedicated tax is key.”

As he points out, per capita culture spending in Toronto is an embarrassing $18 per person. It should be $25. The $10 million raised by the billboard tax would help the city reach that benchmark.

“It’s a positive ruling,” says Beautiful City founder, Devon Ostrom. “As far as our organization is concerned, it’s a question of who has access to public space. The idea of this tax was also to raise money for the arts.”

But since then, Toronto’s sign department has been gutted. At this point, no one is sure the city could enforce the new rules even if it wanted to.

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