76 Church Street. Photo courtesy of Illegal Signs.
The billboard industry is—obviously—in the business of getting messages across.
This they have managed to do, with a vengeance.
In anticipation of today’s City Council debate on a proposed new billboard bylaw and tax, the billboard industry has been using its own platform to communicate its deep opposition to these measures. The Out-of-Home Marketing Association of Canada (OMAC), which represents the vast majority of billboard companies operating in Toronto, launched this campaign last week, setting aside 139 billboards for the cause.
Inconveniently, it turns out that at least two of these 139 billboards have been deemed illegal by the City. As pointed out and explained to us by Rami Tabello of Illegal Signs, both are in violation of existing regulations and neither should be doing what they are doing, namely expressing just how aggrieved and put-upon the billboard industry is feeling.
And this, say public-space activists, is precisely the point.
1163 St. Clair Avenue West. Photo courtesy of Illegal Signs.
The billboard industry has, for years, been running amok, routinely flouting the bylaws that do exist and that cannot be enforced since the City lacks the money to pay for it. It flouts them so routinely that nobody thought to check that billboards protesting the purportedly undue burdens of taxation (Toronto does not levy a tax on billboards at the moment) and harmonized regulation (the rules have not been updated since amalgamation) themselves adhered to the law. And OMAC would have had to check, since so very many of its member companies’ signs are, in fact, illegal. Up to half, according to Tabello’s estimate. (To learn more about the specific violations shown in these photographs, you can look at the City reports on 76 Church Street [PDF] and 1163 St. Clair Avenue West [PDF].)
Likely the biggest point of contention in today’s debate will be the rate of the tax, which the industry claims is greater than its total earnings and an independent economist contracted by the City estimates at 7% of industry revenues [PDF]. The sheer size of the gap between those two numbers indicates just how loose a grip the City has on this matter and how badly it needs to get one. Maybe the proposed tax rate is too high. Maybe it is too low. Without the industry providing reliable information on its earnings (according to the report issued by the aforementioned economist, David Amborski, “[t]he OMAC Study provided no verifiable data or a method that could be utilised to review the accuracy of the revenue and earnings information provided”) there is simply no way to know.
We happen to be of the view that most billboards are a blight. They are visual pollution that, contrary to industry claims, do not provide a “public service” by “informing” us about anything we find vitally important. They are getting bigger, and they are getting brighter, and at least once this past summer the aggregate luminosity of ones at Yonge-Dundas Square gave us a migraine. But that is not the point. The proposed regulations will not eliminate billboards, and they aren’t trying to. Nobody is attempting to strangle the industry to death, stamp out all billboards across the land, or otherwise start a revolution. The City has every right to govern what goes on in our public spaces, and it has every obligation to be a good steward of those spaces, balancing the commercial interests of the industry and the property owners to whom billboard companies pay rent with the civic interests of the majority of Torontonians, 70% of whom support this tax according to a recent poll [PDF].
Nobody likes to be forced to play by the rules. That doesn’t make refereeing an unfair practice.
Council will begin its discussion of the proposed billboard bylaw and tax at 9:30 a.m. You can watch the debate live here. If you have an opinion on this issue, you can find a directory of city councillors here.