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Billboard Tax & Bylaw Passed by Toronto City Council

Posted by Maria Cortellucci / December 7, 2009

billboard tax torontoFor the past week, City Hall was abuzz with artists and activists as councillors debated a new billboard bylaw. Strongly campaigned by the Beautiful City Alliance, this bylaw would regulate and tax outdoor advertising if passed. The outcome? Passed with flying colours, 29 votes to 12.

The five day debate was plagued by delays and postponed a handful of times. Unable to attend in person, I followed the back and forth using the magical powers of the internet: I watched the debate online and followed the council's hash tag feed. The delays, the back and forth, the pomp and circumstance -- all frustrating, to say the least. (Listening to the councillors debate, I wondered who was speaking to prove a point and who was speaking because they liked the sound of their own voice.) Such is life in City Hall.

Promoting the tax is The decentralized network of over 60 organizations, ranging from the AGO and Schools Without Borders to The Gladstone Hotel and, has thousands of members, including artists, activists and plain old city folk.

Billboards in TorontoAccording to their website, believes that "advertising is increasingly infringing on our public spaces... The billboard tax is a fair and just means for private advertisers to take responsibility for their impact on the city.

"That we even have a tax and strong bylaw is a success, considering the fact that our campaign had a shoestring budget while the other side had professional associates pouring millions of dollars into lobbyists," said Devon Ostrom, founder of and public art promoter/curator extraordinaire.

"We wanted city council to pass a tax on billboards and to ensure the new bylaw they adopt brings in a strong type of regulation so our neighbourhoods can enjoy a beautiful and clean street scape," said Ostrom.

On the other side, you have the billboard advertisers, represented by the Out-of-Home Marketing Association of Canada (or OMAC) and the best balls-to-the-wall lobbyists that money could buy.

The rate of the tax, between 4% and 7%, spawned the biggest debate. Depending on the size and type of the sign, the fee could range from $1,000 a year to $24,000. This would make roughly $10.4 million a year in revenue for the city.

The billboard advertisers are not happy about it. Neither are some folk at the Globe and Mail.

They believe the tax is too excessive, that no economic basis was presented for it, and it will directly and indirectly put jobs in the industry at risk.

But, "the billboard industry is not accountable," said Ostrom. "It doesn't play by the rules, and doesn't treat neighbourhoods with respect. Beautiful City debates the merits of an industry that has flouted our laws for decades."

Billboards in the CityHonestly? I don't have a huge problem with all billboards. Sometimes, I even find them amusing. And, GASP, creative. (*Dusts off shield for the onslaught of comments.)

However, billboards are more often than not an eyesore - ugly, crass and repetitive. The signs that will be regulated by this new bylaw will include not just ad billboards, but free-standing signs and fascia/wall signs.

An even bigger concern is the city's inability to police and regulate illegal billboards.
On his website, Councillor Joe Mihevc describes how his residents were fed up with the sheer volume of third party advertising that exists in the city, including digital and tri-vision ads.

(Funnily enough, OMAC used illegal billboards with ridiculous Uncle Sam-like slogans to argue their side of the debate, as pointed out by The Torontoist.)

Other points of contention were brought up in motions pushed by Councillors Norm Kelly and Giorgio Mammoliti, among others. These motions wanted to put LED/electronic copy billboards in all neighbourhoods, reduce the required distance of billboards to intersections from 30 to 6 metres, reduce the lights off provision and lastly, increase the allowable height of billboards by 20 metres. All failed.

So, does the government have a right to tax billboard advertisers? And who determines what to do with the revenue? Part of the money will go to regulating the billboards, but what about the rest? petitioned (with over 4,500 signatures!) to have leftover money from the tax allocated to the funding of public art (murals, sculptures, outdoor fests, and free performances). But, it seems the money will not be allocated to the arts upfront. Instead, the 2010 budget process will determine where the money will go.

In a city where art spending is a joke, something like this has potential to be extremely beneficial. Toronto spends less on public art then any other major city in Canada.

According to an Environics poll, 55% of Torontonians would be less likely to support the tax if it didn't go towards arts.

However, "We're confident city council will have see the wisdom in supporting public art when it comes to determining the budget process," said Ostrom. "But you can definitely see the influence of lobbyists over city council."

A billboard tax & bylaw, huh? Getting a rogue industry under control and squeezing some dollars out of it to do so? Sounds good to me.

Photos: "Rope ladder" by wvs, "Dundas Square @ 2.a.m." by ~EvidencE~, "King and Queen" by Diego_3336



James / December 7, 2009 at 05:25 pm
I'm not going to lie...I had my doubts and although I supported the Beautiful City Alliance and made calls on their behalf, I didn't think it was going to pass.

I thought that once again Toronto was going to take a golden opportunity and flush it away. Today is a good day. It took a while but I'm glad it's here.
hbr / December 7, 2009 at 05:38 pm
Who are we kidding.the newest tax grab will most likely benefit city hall employees and facilitate a bit more useless spending, maybe a purple box progam for the shitty policies that we all need to endure on a weekly basis.....oh and while we're on the topic of eye-offenses.....the museum should ante up 10 bucks to each passerby as penance for defacing a historic and perfectly fine building with aluminum siding ....if that's the type of art that the elite,literati,culturally superior want to see for "not their own, but someone elses money", then fuck
James / December 7, 2009 at 05:38 pm
user-pic surprising.
MJ / December 7, 2009 at 05:40 pm
How this changes anything is beyond me. Costs will be passed on from agencies, to advertisers to consumers. Furthermore, what makes you think that a city that is unable to enforce a sign bylaw will be able to enforce a sign tax?
jay / December 7, 2009 at 05:41 pm

Now, maybe council BCA can do something about the real blight on our city, those Neon on Black signs everywhere. They are ugly and crass.
Chris / December 7, 2009 at 05:54 pm
I'm actually glad the tax is not being mandated towards the purchase of public art, which, let's face it, is far from controversial in its own right. I have no problems with the city choosing to spend some of that money on public art, but it should not be legislatively earmarked in that manner. That would have created its own problems, especially with the city in a constant battle to balance its budget, precisely because it refuses to make tough decisions about allocation of scarce resources.
cocoa / December 7, 2009 at 06:22 pm
the city lacks the architectural beauty to warrant a crackdown on billboards. often it's the billboards that bring the colour, light and art to otherwise grey scenes

the advertising in the second photo is what makes the photo beautiful...imagine if it wasn't there? we'd have the toronto life comintern and that drab hotel on the other side to look at.

please don't go, billboards.

shlepster / December 7, 2009 at 06:27 pm
So companies stop putting billboards up and that $10 million becomes what? Nadda in the end. Next year they find something else to tax and so on. It will never end, it won't even go to art in TO, artists can hold their breath until they turn blue in the face. November can't come too soon, all these people in City Council need to be replace, if not the people of Toronto deserve what they get.
Mark Dowling / December 7, 2009 at 06:30 pm
@chris - I agree. Apparently the budget advisory committee members are indicating they will direct funding in 2010 but they will have to be responsible for that decision rather than saying "the bylaw made us do it" at a time when they will likely be imposing ~5% cuts on city budgets.
Mark Dowling / December 7, 2009 at 06:31 pm
@mj - how will the advertisers - mostly national or provincial in reach - be able to charge 416 customers more than 905/705 customers to "pass on the tax"?
Mark Dowling / December 7, 2009 at 06:32 pm
@"David Miller" - next step is a tax on parking spaces. ASAP.
John / December 7, 2009 at 07:47 pm
Why didn't Joe Pantalone vote on the sign bylaw? He's not sick ... he's in council right now!
deedee / December 7, 2009 at 08:42 pm
This tax is a little insane though. This will run an industry into the ground. Kinda sucks. Imagine all your revenue just disappearing. Just because a company makes a large amount doesn't mean it can suddenly reroute that money into taxes and be able to survive.
Nolan / December 7, 2009 at 08:59 pm
The billboard companies will be just fine.

I doubt we will see any change in the number of billboards. I'm thrilled this tax has passed, though. Good job Toronto.
Resident of the GTA / December 7, 2009 at 09:01 pm
how will the advertisers - mostly national or provincial in reach - be able to charge 416 customers more than 905/705 customers to "pass on the tax"?

---They already charge the 416 more. Check out prices outside of Toronto now. Toronto is the hot market we pay more for goods, companies spend more to exist here. 705 and 905 are suburbs of Toronto.

Let's face it the GTA is one city, dysfunctional, fractured, grinding itself to be obsolete.

We are underrepresented in politics, what happened to 1 person - 1 vote. Toronto residents are worth .65 of most other Canadians.

First a tax here, soon all municipalities in Ontario will have one :-). Start writing the mayors of Oshawa, Mississauga.
Mark Dowling / December 7, 2009 at 09:24 pm
No sign of Joe P - if there was a doubt he intends a mayoral run, doomed as it should be, it is removed. He wants to be able to tell the business community he's not a tax raiser like that young punk Admiral Giambrone.

Incidentally, Councillor Mihevc's name is misspelled in the post above.
Yo Ma Ma / December 7, 2009 at 09:46 pm

This is wonderful news!

It will be even more wonderful if the city actually enforces the removal of existing illegal advertising, and ensures that new illegal installations cannot proceed.

At least for the present however, is appears that local government can be productively influenced by its citizens - now let's use the same energy to influence what happens on the national level as well, in place of the backroom shutouts which currently occur in place of real democracy.

Xavier / December 8, 2009 at 08:02 am
Once again city council proves the only thing they can do efficiently is raise taxes. What a surprise
IMHO / December 8, 2009 at 10:28 am
More taxes for billboard advertising = MORE billboard advertising! You know the City is going to approve more applications in order to collect more tax dollars. Can't wait to see all the U.S. capitalist corporations spewing more of their neon/LED ugliness around town.

The City by-law should have made mantatory that a certain percentage of billboard advertising be Canadian-based companies (or even better - local). And, at the very least, not-for-profit companies should be exempt from the added billboard tax.
Sean / December 8, 2009 at 11:06 am
There should be a tax on councillors who stay more than 4 years, say 10 per cent. Up to 8 years, 15 per cent. Every four years, simply add 5 per cent. This new tax will would cover snow removal and road salt costs for decades to come!
Moi / December 8, 2009 at 11:30 am
Billboard tax...what's next a spitting tax? a subway 'you are touching me' tax?...a 'your Xmas lights are too bright on your house' tax?

TaxMan / December 8, 2009 at 12:16 pm
I don't understand why Miller & Co. won't just nut up and slap a 1.5% Municipal Sales Tax on us. They have the power to do so.
Sean / December 8, 2009 at 07:06 pm
No need to tax my Xmas lights. These politically incorrect LED lights are so dim, you can't even see them across the street. They dim just like the those awful and expensive fluorescent mercury-filled lights which are not only harmful to your health if broken but to the environment as well.

Tax the politicians I say.
Social Capital / December 9, 2009 at 11:40 am
I think this tax is a great idea! The City should now go about permitting as many billboards as possible to generate more revenue for the arts and more profit to local business and landlords to tax! A win-win for media companies and the arts scene both!

Isn't that the plan?
heennyVob / January 13, 2010 at 05:25 am
I would just like to take time too thank the active members for doing what you do and make this community great im a long time reader and first time poster so i just wanted to say thanks.
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