The lowdown on the billboard tax

The city's proposed billboard tax likely won't happen overnight, if at all, but here's the deets behind the headlines.

A billboard tax under public review by the City of Toronto is gaining grassroots support and backing from community and arts organizations. Projections in the city’s official report on new tax options are that a tax on billboards would raise about $2.6 million annually. A more comprehensive report on potential new revenue tools is scheduled to be considered by the executive committee at its meeting on June 25.

However, supporters of the Beautiful City Billboard Fee issued a press release last week saying the tax could raise six million dollars for the Toronto Arts Council, gathered via an annual license fee paid by advertisers. The release, issued by Toronto-based communications company Lotus Leaf, states that a Pollara poll found only 15% of Torontonians are against such a fee.

Supporters of the BCBF included the 411 Initiative for Change, Arts & Contemporary Studies Student Union, Artsvote, Centre for Integral Economics, Digital Propaganda,, Grassroots Youth Collaborative,, Lotus Leaf Communications, Manifesto, Mural Routes, PressPause, Regent Park Focus Youth Media Arts Centre, Rhythmicru, Spacing Magazine, Style in Progress, The Remix Project, The Gladstone Hotel, The Faculty Of,, Toronto Arts Council Foundation, Toronto Youth Cabinet, and UrbanArts & Youth Action Network.

City of Toronto senior research policy officer Rudi Czekalla tells MiC that a billboard tax, if approved, likely won’t happen very soon. ‘You could potentially implement it tomorrow if council said let’s go ahead and do it, but it’s probably not going to happen for some time, if at all, because we’re just starting to undertake a review of the city’s sign bylaws.

‘As we do that,’ Czekalla adds, ‘obviously we don’t want to play around with fees or taxes pertaining to signs when we don’t know what our new bylaw is going to look like. That process will likely take two to three years (so) we probably won’t have a recommendation . . . for two to three years, if in fact we go for a billboard tax.’

Public consultations regarding new taxes began last month. According to the final revenue tools report, the billboard tax could see charges of $3-$10 per square foot of billboard area charged to the ad companies or property owners that operate them.

The initial report on the new taxes states that a billboard tax in Toronto would likely be structured like that of Winnipeg, rather those implemented in American cities, such as Philadelphia, where several legal challenges have arisen. The Winnipeg tax charges $0.34 per square foot and raises $49,000 annually from 620 billboards. For a 200 square foot billboard, the average tax is $68 per year.

The report states: ‘A Toronto billboard tax may well be subject to a legal appeal since there is very little precedent and no clear legislative authority to apply a billboard tax… The revised City of Toronto Act (2006) does not expressly permit a billboard tax, and this ambiguity could lead to legal difficulties… If advertising companies were to pay land-owners more for the right to display a billboard, it could be assumed that they would pass as much of the burden on to the purchasers of advertising space as possible. However, since billboards compete with other forms of advertising, the ability to do so may be limited.’

The report also estimates the quantity of OOH media, as of Oct. 2006, to be: 3,767 posters, 95 backlit posters, 161 bulletins and spectaculars, 11 murals, 2 outdoor televisions and 4,204 street-level ads.

The Out-of-Home Marketing Association and individual billboard companies declined to comment on the billboard tax issue at this time.