Revenue from Toronto's new billboard tax could wind up fuelling a substantial increase in cultural spending after all if a proposal by the budget chief wins approval before council breaks for the election.
Councillor Shelley Carroll intends to move a motion at Wednesday's meeting of the executive committee asking staff to craft a long-term plan to meet the funding targets of the Culture Plan adopted in 2003 by "taking into consideration the new revenue stream created by the Billboard Tax."
"We'd go out the door to campaign really having left a policy statement for staff to build a budget on," Ms. Carroll said. "That's what's key."
How to spend the money generated by the new tax - which, along with a new citywide sign bylaw, took effect Tuesday - has been a political hot potato for months.
A coalition of 60 arts groups calling itself Beautiful City devoted years to lobbying for a billboard tax on the condition the cash went to public art. But when council voted for the tax in December, it chose not to earmark the proceeds, leaving the fate of the money to the budget instead.
This year the tax is expected to bring in only $3.5-million, $1.8-million of which will go to enforcing the strict new bylaw. The rest is going into general revenues, although Ms. Carroll said that a 2-per-cent hike to Toronto's grants budget, combined with extra money for the Toronto International Film Festival and Luminato, is roughly equivalent to the remaining $1.7-million.
The city's finance staff predicts the billboard tax will rake in a little over $10-million per year beginning in 2011, and it is that money Ms. Carroll wants funnelled into satisfying the 2003 Culture Plan.
"To me it's a perfect opportunity," said Claire Hopkinson, executive director of the Toronto Arts Council, the city's arms-length arts funding agency. "The only shame of it is we're now up for an election. Whatever motions pass, the new council won't be bound by it."
Indeed, one early theme in the race to replace David Miller has been fiscal responsibility, with most candidates pledging to be more frugal than the outgoing mayor. It is not even certain the current council would support a substantial boost to arts funding, considering Toronto's long-term money woes.
"Taking a new tax like the billboard tax and directing it to pet projects is really mind-boggling," said Councillor Doug Holyday, a frequent critic of city spending. "It really shows you why she [Ms. Carroll]shouldn't be in charge of the city budget."
At the tail end of mayor Mel Lastman's tenure, council voted in favour of a plan to bring Toronto's annual spending on arts and culture up to $25 per capita within five years.
At the time, the city doled out approximately $36-million, or $14.61 per capita, on the arts, including grants to the Toronto Arts Council, grants to major institutions such as the Royal Ontario Museum and the Canadian Opera Company, and direct spending on city-owned cultural attractions.
Since then, funding has crept up to about $18 per capita, well short of the $25 goal council promised to hit by 2008, according to the city's department of Economic Development, Culture and Tourism.
Ms. Carroll's proposal would see the municipal government use the billboard windfall to help achieve the target of $25 per capita, or about $62.5-million, by the time the plan expires in 2013.
Devon Ostrom, the leader of the Beautiful City campaign, said he would be happy to see the billboard cash help fulfill that target, so long as some of the money goes to youth and "marginalized" communities creating art in public spaces.
Still, he said it is unfortunate Torontonians won't see the tangible benefits of the billboard tax until after the election. "I don't see why Toronto needs to settle for mediocrity," he said.
THE SIGN BYLAW
The city's new sign regime replaces six different sign bylaws and nearly 100 amendments left over from amalgamation. The new rules include:
- Prohibiting new roof signs
- Shutting off illuminated signs between 11 p.m. and 7 a.m.
- Forcing billboard owners to renew their billboard permission every five years
- Keeping new billboards out of residential and natural areas
- Sending billboard owners who want an exception to the rules to a new citizen sign committee, instead of politician-stacked community councils
THE BILLBOARD TAX
The city's new billboard tax applies to all third-party signs - advertisements for products that are not sold out of the building hosting the sign - with a face area larger than one square metre. The rates range from $1,150 to $24,000 depending on the size and type of sign. The tax is expected to raise $10.4-million annually when it's in place for a full year. This year, the first billboard tax bill won't be issued until July 1.