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To Council’s long list of maladies, we can now add schizophrenia. As evidence, I offer the following:
Council is currently debating a major change in the city’s billboard law, a rewrite overseen by Councilman Bob Henon, who has been doing yeoman work on it for months, trying to reconcile community groups and anti-billboard forces with the billboard industry, which has a high population of sharks.
Henon’s bill would do many things; including grandfathering in illegal boards, but a key feature would be to freeze the number of billboards at their current number of about 2,000 citywide. The bill appears to be on its way to passage.
At the same time, Council is considering a bill to allow billboards on the city’s public schools and on public school buses. If it passes, which, it seems likely at this moment, it will clearly result in the addition of many billboards.
Council President Darrell Clarke has a similar legislation to allow billboards along the North Broad Street corridor from Center City to Lehigh Avenue and on Market Street East. That bill is still in committee.
To summarize, on one hand Council is considering a bill to freeze the number of billboards, while simultaneously considering bills to increase the number of billboards.
So, if the question is: Does Council want to freeze the number of billboards or does it want to expand them? The answer is yes.
Then again, consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds. Speaking of which, there is Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown. I wouldn’t say that Reynolds is the reigning champion of coming up with bad ideas to support noble causes. On second thought, I would say it.
She is the author of the billboards on schools bill, with Clarke as a cosponsor. Earlier, you may recall, she suggested legislation to ‘help’ the schools by allowing bars to extend their closing time from 2 a.m. to 3 a.m. Her logic was that since the over-the-bar drink tax goes to the school district, letting people drink for another hour would increase tax revenues. The estimate was $4 million a year.
This would go to a district with a $2.4 billion budget and a $300 million deficit. A shot glass of help for a gallon of troubles.
Of course, it was all about the children, to use Reynolds Brown’s favorite mantra.
That idea did not fly. Community groups hated it. The police nearly had a heart attack. Just what they needed wandering the streets at 3 a.m — more drunks.
To be clear, Reynolds Brown’s new bill is not about putting advertising in the schools, but on the schools or on school property. The bill has little detail, but the way I read it it would supersede city rules and regs on size, placement and the nature of the billboards, wraps and other advertising, including that noxious newcomer to the outdoor advertising world, digital billboards.
In fact, one of the tenets of existing city law on billboards is to keep them away from schools. There are regs that forbid their placement within 300 yards of a school building. Reynolds Brown’s bill would turn that prohibition on its heads and allow them in the school’s playground.
Brown’s argument is that in these difficult times we have to be open to new ideas for raising money for the schools.
I am all for new ideas. I am just against stupid ideas.
What is at work here? Why are the industry and its handmaidens on Council so anxious to put billboards in schoolyards, atop apartment and commercial buildings on North Broad Street? Or who knows where else.
I can explain it with a simple phrase: They have run out of space.
The reality is that nearly every desirable space that can legally hold a billboard in Philadelphia already has one. There’s no room for more, given the current legal proscriptions.
Believe me, if the industry could legally put more billboards along the Schuylkill Expressway, I-95, on the Delaware River bridges, and in other high-traffic areas, it would.
What the industry wants – desperately, ceaselessly needs – is room for more. Next time you ride up I-95, looks at the school buildings within sight and think of them with billboards on their roofs. Or, think of the schools that line Broad Street – South Philly High, CAPA, Ben Franklin – with large digital billboards stuck on their grounds. Or billboards in the front yards of elementary schools along Germantown Avenue and Roosevelt Boulevard.
I could go on. The reality is that most public schools are in the midst of residential neighborhoods and existing law is designed to keep billboards out of them. These new proposals would let them in.
This is not only inconsistent public policy it is incoherent public policy.
While Council was in a frenzy to move Reynolds Brown’s bill forward, Councilman Dennis O’Brien cast the lone “No” vote. O’Brien said that ideas such as these would only serve to needlessly divert attention from finding a true, sustainable funding base for the public schools. Someone say Amen.
However, if Reynold’s Brown is insistent on getting more money for the schools through billboards, let me suggest a few ideas:
• Increase the fines for illegal bills from a mere $150 a day to something more real — perhaps $500 per day would do it. They did it in New York City and the illegal/non-confirming boards came down.
• Just don’t cite for violations, actually follow through and make the companies pay. I have a list in front of me of 43 cases of billboards being out of code — some of them as far back as 2002 — with fines totaling $36 million. It would be nice if the city went after that money in the courts.
• Increase the billboard excise tax, a seven percent levy on the gross receipts of billboards. Our parking tax is 20 percent, our drink tax 10 percent, our hotel tax 8.2 percent. Why not have the billboard companies pay the same for rights to our civic airspace?
• Speaking of the excise tax, to me its yield is suspiciously low — only $2.5 million a year. Translated, that means billboard companies are only getting $35 million a year total in billings on the 2,000 billboards in the city? Maybe the Revenue Department should audit a few of the big operators to see if they are low balling on their stated receipts.
Enforcement of existing laws and rigorous tax collection would probably yield more money than digitals billboards on the roofs of our public schools, blinking out the message to passing motorists: “It’s for the children! It’s for the children!”