Toronto council passes new OOH bylaw and tax

Toronto city council voted in favour of a bylaw requiring any new outdoor advertising concept be submitted to city staff before approval by council, and a tax which could see the city's OOH advertising industry pay up to $10.4 million a year. OMAC is weighing its options, including a potential lawsuit challenging the decision.

Following several years of rhetoric, intense lobbying and occasionally heated debate, Toronto council on Monday adopted a new harmonized sign bylaw that will regulate the out-of-home advertising industry.

‘We have a new sign bylaw,’ said speaker Sandra Bussin, after council voted 29-12 in favour of the much-debated bylaw, which replaces a hodgepodge of regulations that has governed the OOH industry since amalgamation in 1997. Council introduced a provision stating that no new outdoor advertising concept be permitted unless it is specifically identified in the bylaw, and that any new approach be submitted to city staff before approval by council.

Council also voted 25-16 in favour of the Third Party Sign Tax (TPST), which could see the industry fork over as much as $10.4 million a year in taxes.

Rosanne Caron, president of the Out-of-Home Marketing Association of Canada (OMAC), told reporters she was ‘very disappointed’ by the council vote, reiterating OMAC’s position that the tax amounts to ‘considerably more’ than the industry’s pre-tax profit of $8 million.

‘You’re going to decimate the industry,’ she said. ‘How can it survive, how can it be a healthy industry and grow?’

Caron refused to comment on whether the industry would launch a lawsuit challenging the council decision, but said that OMAC members – which include major OOH companies CBS Outdoor, Pattison Outdoor and Astral Media Outdoor – will review Monday’s decisions before deciding on its options.

Caron also warned that council’s decision could jeopardize the approximately $6 million in free advertising space that the industry donates to more than 95 Toronto-area charities each year.

‘The industry will have to weigh in on what it can do in terms of supporting those charities on an ongoing basis,’ she said. ‘Ultimately a tax that affects an industry will have an impact on its ability to provide that kind of support in the future.’

The vote elicited a loud cheer from the dozens of public space and art advocates in attendance, and an admonition of ‘don’t spend it before you get it’ from a member of the OOH industry.

Indeed, while much of the talk around the so-called billboard tax had focused on it going towards groups dedicated to city beautification and the arts, such as, council instead decided that the money would be allocated during the budget process.

During the hours of public debate that preceded Monday’s decision, some councillors had proposed that the money go towards initiatives that included everything from graffiti removal to ice rinks.

Councillor Case Ootes said it would be fiscally imprudent to have a dedicated recipient of the TPST. ‘Given our financial situation, we need to really evaluate what our priorities are and ultimately [the arts] may not be our priority,’ he said. ‘I don’t think we can tell at this time.’

Councillor Rob Ford, meanwhile, dismissed the arts groups as ‘a bunch of freeloaders,’ and said there is no way funds raised by the TPST will find their way to them. ‘You know it’s not going to the arts, everybody in this room knows it’s not going to the arts,’ he said. ‘The arts folks are going to jump up and say ‘Where’s the money? You promised us the money last year.’ I’ve got news for you…you’re not getting this money.’

Speaking after the vote, councillor Kyle Rae told reporters that even if the money is allocated for beautification projects, there is no way of ensuring it will flow to them indefinitely. ‘We could say in the 2010 budget that we want to see it all go to the arts, but a future council could change that,’ he said. ‘There’s no way of making it forever.’

Standing just feet away from Caron, outspoken public space advocate Rami Tabello told MiC that he was ‘completely delighted’ with the outcome. ‘City council completely rejected the patently absurd arguments that OMAC put forward, and saw right through the lies that the industry put forth,’ he said.

Tabello, who has waged a fierce battle against the OOH industry through his web site for the past several years, joked that with a sign bylaw in place, he’s now contemplating taking on payday loan operations.

‘You’ve got to have an enemy you can vilify,’ he said.