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Proposal to tax outdoor advertising in Pittsburgh revived

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Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
 

Pittsburgh City Council again is considering legislation that would tax companies selling advertising space on billboards.

Outdoor-advertising companies would pay 10 percent of what they earn on a sign under the bill, sponsored by council President Darlene Harris and Councilwoman Natalia Rudiak.

Harris said revenue could go toward buying police cars. Former Councilman Doug Shields proposed such a tax last year.

“This only makes sense,” Harris said on Tuesday. “Without our streets, nobody would see billboards, and police cars are used to protect our streets.”

She said the cash-strapped city needs $2 million to $3 million annually to replace police vehicles on a regular schedule. She estimated the tax could bring in $200,000 to $300,000 next year.

Shields introduced his bill in December after Lamar Advertising, the city's largest outdoor-advertising company, applied to put up 20 electronic billboards in the city. The bill died at the end of the legislative session.

Jonathan Kamin, a Downtown attorney who represents Lamar, called the legislation the “Darlene Harris extortion bill.”

Stan Geier, vice president and general manager of Lamar's Pittsburgh office, said in an email that the proposal is “unconstitutional.”

“Outdoor advertising is a speech protected by the First Amendment, and a special tax levied on any one industry engaging in First Amendment activities is unconstitutional,” he said.

Harris said she and Rudiak modeled their bill after legislation in Philadelphia, which a court upheld. Philadelphia levies a 7 percent tax on the purchase price of billboards; the tax generates about $2.5 million annually.

Harris and Rudiak said advertising companies pay a pittance in real estate taxes on billboard property. The tax would be an alternative to taxing homeowners, Harris said.

“You might have a billboard ... that's paying, what, $14 dollars in property tax? And the house next door is paying $1,000,” Harris said.

A debate over electronic billboards erupted in 2008, when Lamar erected one on the Grant Street Transportation Center, Downtown. The sign ignited protests and prompted council to pass a moratorium on electronic signs, which stands. City officials halted Lamar's construction of the sign, contending the company lacked proper permits. Lamar removed it last year after exhausting extensive legal appeals.

The controversy also triggered the 2008 resignation of Urban Redevelopment Authority Executive Director Pat Ford, who negotiated the transportation center's sign project, after city officials accused him of accepting gifts from a Lamar executive.

Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@tribweb.com.

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