City committee endorses sign bylaw; industry reacts with anger, disappointment

A controversial new harmonized sign bylaw was endorsed by the City of Toronto's Planning and Growth Management Committee yesterday, a move the ACA says in effect penalizes the industry.

Toronto’s controversial new harmonized sign bylaw cleared a major hurdle late Wednesday with an endorsement from the city’s Planning and Growth Management Committee to send the bylaw to the city council for a vote.

The group representing the out-of-home advertising industry reacted by saying it was ‘deeply disappointed’ by the decision, and lambasted the sign bylaw as an ‘anti-business measure that will devastate our industry financially.’

The Out-of-home Marketing Association of Canada (OMAC) had last week urged the Committee to defer the meeting in the hopes of further consultation with the sign bylaw project team.

Representatives from the out-of-home industry, as well as public space advocates and industry groups including the Association of Canadian Advertisers (ACA) and the Canadian Media Directors’ Council (CMDC), also attended Wednesday’s meeting.

However, Committee chair Norm Kelly contends the OOH industry actually scored a ‘major victory,’ since Committee didn’t lend its full support to a proposed billboard tax – instead asking city staff to review the tax proposal and report back to council.

It is estimated the tax would generate $10.4 million annually for the City of Toronto, funds that have been promised to cover the cost of sign bylaw enforcement and provide an annual source of revenue for municipal arts and cultural programs.

‘We could accept a tax at the level to recover the cost of administering and enforcing the bylaw,’ Rosanne Caron, president of the Out-of-Home Marketing Association of Canada, told MiC. ‘[But] if the city feels art and culture is an area that needs to be funded, it should be budgeted for by the city.’

Caron also argued that city staff provided no ‘concrete rationale’ for the taxation rate.

Bob Reaume, VP of policy and research with the ACA, characterized the billboard tax as a ‘tax grab,’ and echoed OMAC’s assertion that it will have a disastrous effect on the industry. ‘It’s an abomination,’ he told MiC. ‘It’s a whitewash.’

In his deputation Wednesday, Reaume said that by imposing such an onerous billboard tax, it appeared the city is ‘penalizing an industry that contributes to the local economy. Advertising activity is usually a catalyst for business growth; this proposed new sign bylaw and billboard tax, however, seems designed to discourage economic activity for Toronto.’

OMAC, which counts leading OOH ad companies including CBS Outdoor and Pattison Outdoor among its members, also reiterated earlier claims that the industry was not properly consulted or listened to during the process, leading to a bylaw that is ‘poorly written, incomplete and unreasonably restrictive.’

Reaume, too, said he was perplexed by the city’s lack of consultation with the industry. ‘[OOH companies] were fully cooperative, and they have an enormous amount of knowledge and expertise in this area,’ he said. ‘Why the city would not want to tap into this is beyond me.’

Committee chair Kelly, however, vehemently disagreed with OMAC’s assessment. ‘I think it was a major victory for those guys,’ he said in a telephone interview Thursday with MiC. ‘We [might] have saved them millions of dollars, and if they didn’t understand that last night, they’re blind to the political process.

‘They should have been dancing out of the council chamber.’

Kelly claimed that he helped ‘put a shield’ between the sign industry and so-called ‘hardliners’ like councillors Adam Vaughan and Howard Moscoe, both outspoken critics of the OOH industry.

‘The industry has told us ‘We’re willing to pay the cost of the [bylaw enforcement] office and a tip,’ so why wouldn’t you look at what the Committee recommended and say ‘We’ve taken a giant step forward’?’

However, OMAC contends that city staff ‘hid’ their economist at the back of the room until after all 50 deputations were made at the meeting, preventing the industry from questioning the rationale for the tax.

‘When asked a few simple questions by Committee members he admitted he had never studied critical issues such as the amortization rates for new sign permits or the impact of location-based pricing of individual sign faces,’ wrote Caron in a follow-up email. ‘It is unlikely the industry will ever know the basis for the tax strategy.’

But Kelly said city staff is now required to provide council with further rationale for the taxing system, which could potentially save the OOH industry millions of dollars. The industry’s anger, he said, was misplaced.

‘I sat there looking at their grim faces and thought ‘C’mon you guys, I thought you were more sophisticated than this,” he said.