Photo by Michael Chrisman/Torontoist.
Late last night the City’s proposed new billboard bylaw and tax [PDF] cleared a major hurdle, unanimously passing through the Planning and Growth Management Committee on its way to a hearing before the full City Council. The meeting ran ’til about 11 p.m. and had to be moved from one of the regular committee meeting rooms to the main Council Chamber in order to accommodate fifty-plus deputants and scores of other observers. It was a pitched battle, one that has lasted through several years of debate, consultation, and resistance leading up to this moment. A tremendous victory for public space advocates, progressive councillors, and Mayor Miller, the bylaw will provide harmonized regulation of the billboard industry (the rules haven’t been updated since amalgamation) and the tax will create the revenue needed to enforce those regulations.
Though various people (some representing the billboard industry and some public space advocates) had qualms about various provisions in or left out of the draft bylaw language, these were relatively minor. The most significant point of contention was the taxation rate. Billboard industry representatives claimed that the proposed amount of the tax—which would total just over ten million dollars a year city-wide—was greater than the sum total of their profits and would put them out of business. However, most observers of the advertising industry believe that the billboard companies have grossly understated their earnings: the outside economist the City hired to develop the taxation model, David Amborski, developed a tax rate that he believes amounts to about 7% of industry revenue. Councillors present said, repeatedly, that the industry numbers simply defied belief, and several challenged the billboard companies to disclose their real revenues to an independent third party for assessment (the figures the industry brought to the PGM Committee were based on voluntary self-reporting).
Our favourite moment of the day came towards the end of debate, as nerves were fraying and people—likely out of sheer exhaustion—began to speak their minds more freely. Industry representatives had been protesting the fact that the new bylaw doesn’t accommodate their continued growth, as it limits the number of billboards that can legally go up in a number of ways (by imposing minimum separation distances between them, for instance, or prohibiting them at intersections). How, they exclaimed, could the City leave them with such limited opportunities? Exasperated—or perhaps righteously indignant—Councillor Janet Davis (Ward 31, Beaches-East York) finally said what half the people in the room had been thinking all along: “Well maybe we just shouldn’t have growth in advertising. I don’t want to live in a city with an ever-growing and burgeoning number of signs…it’s not my vision of a beautiful city.”
Nor, let us say, is it ours.
The billboard bylaw and tax will be debated at the next Council meeting, on November 30 and December 1.