The Weekly has long had an eye on sketchy billboard deals throughout Los Angeles. In 2008, we reported that 4,000 of the city's 11,000 billboards were illegal, built without permits or earthquake regulations.
Then came the Westside "Mad Men," fat-cat entrepreneurs who were skirting the law to erect supergraphic billboards -- blasting bright and loud as HD TVs through residential window curtains. Today, 100 of those blinding digital 'boards remain.
L.A. City Councilmembers vote this afternoon on a controversial item proposed by councilman Herb Wesson for the March municipal ballot: A whopping 12 percent tax on any purchase of billboard ad space, to be funneled into the city's General Fund. Expected revenue is $24 million in the first year alone.
"For decades, the citizens of West Hollywood have been forced to live with billboards, tall walls, large screen video displays and other off-site signs, while billboard companies have received over a billion dollars in advertising revenues and West Hollywood has become the sign capitol of California. The time is now for billboard companies to pay their fair share to the City of West Hollywood for this privilege."
However, whether it be for West Hollywood or the City of Los Angeles, No. 1 L.A. anti-billboard activist Dennis Hathaway sees glaring problems with such a tax. Basically, it would encourage politicians to allow unsightly or illegal ads, because each one means more revenue. As Hathaway wrote on his highly informative Ban Billboard Blight website:
"How would city officials view proposals to get rid of more billboards when those signs were ringing the cash resisters at city hall? And more ominously, how would city officials react to efforts on the part of the outdoor advertising industry to erect more signs, whether billboards or of some other variety, if those signs meant more revenue to pay police and firefighters, maintain city streets, and so on?"
And as for the supergraphics?
"These 'jumbotron' like signs that run rotations of 6-8 ads per minute are big moneymakers for the companies, and would provide a significant amount of revenue to the city. Will the city now want to protect them?"
"That's the danger," Hathway told the Weekly. "If the City Council starts looking at billboards as revenue, it will decrease incentive to reduce billboards."
Though the all-talk City Council banned the creation of any new billboards in 2002, it only had a Prohibition-like effect on advertisers, who resorted to backroom deals and crafty permit tricks.
City Councilmembers weren't immune to the excitement, either. Throughout the criminal history of sky-high advertising in L.A., council two-facers like Bill Rosendahl and Jan Perry (both still in office) have denounced big-bad billboards while making contradictory exceptions for ad companies willing to share a piece of their profit with the city.
Among other council-to-corporation monetary exchanges over the years, Perry allowed Clear Channel Outdoor to erect two billboards along the 10 freeway in 2002, in exchange for dropping a lawsuit against the Metropolitan Transit Authority -- who then thanked Perry by gifting her some MTA land for a wetland park in her district. (Nothing warms a voter's heart like a wetland park.)
In the future, if the hefty tax is put in place, the L.A. City Councilmembers would have dollar signs in their eyes when considering any new billboard. And there are certainly ways around the 2002 ban:
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Hathaway explained that developers can ask for billboard space in any development agreement -- like the sign-heavy L.A. Live "entertainment campus" erected in 2006. The second loophole is something called a "sign district," such as the one on 16th Street in Hollywood. According to Hathaway, 10 applications for new sign districts are currently pending approval by the L.A. City Planning Commission, including a Wilshire Grand Hotel Project (think two 40-story and 60-story towers, wrapped in rows of supergraphics).
Citizens and activists concerned with a new wave of uglification are far outnumbered by the main adversaries to the billboard tax: The businesses who would be paying it. They're playing the bad-economy card:
"During the worst economy of our lifetime and as local businesses struggle to keep their customers and pay their employees, the Los Angeles City Council is currently considering a staggering new business tax to be imposed on all businesses that rely on outdoor advertising to help offset the city's budget shortfalls," said Damian Jones, spokesman for the Los Angeles Outdoor Advertising Coalition, in a press release.
Sure, sure. Whatever it takes to throw this giant conflict of interest off the council floor is cool with us.