Mayor Sam Katz's inner circle -- minus the mayor himself -- has backed away from a radical billboard-tax hike.
City council's executive policy committee voted 5-1 on Wednesday to approve a long-awaited package of regulations governing outdoor advertising but held off on a plan to raise taxes on conventional billboards by 380 per cent and levy significant new taxes on digital billboards.
The new regulations would ban digital moving type -- that is, scrolling electronic words -- and restrict the placement of other digital signs for traffic-safety reasons. The city has been trying to grapple with regulation of digital signs since 2008, when council approved a new telephone book-sized zoning bylaw.
Last week, council's property committee approved the new regulations as well as the taxes, against the wishes of outdoor-advertising firms, their contractors and the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce. At the time, council property chairman Jeff Browaty (North Kildonan) said the outdoor-advertising industry wasn't paying enough.
But on Wednesday, Browaty said the city should explore the idea of charging a percentage of the revenue each billboard generates, rather than levy a square-footage rate that would increase the annual tax burden on the average Winnipeg billboard to $1,140 from $350.
"We're not looking to eliminate billboards with an unfair tax," said Browaty, who said he changed his mind after he confirmed industry claims about the proposed tax hike. Winnipeg should not charge just as much for a large billboard as Toronto does for one along a major freeway, he said.
Outdoor-advertising heavyweights Pattison and CBS have offered to open up their books to allow the city to come up with new tax rates.
Pattison sales director Joanne Koop said her industry is prepared to pay more than it currently does, even though Winnipeg is among only five North American cities to levy billboard taxes.
"Now we can breathe, step back and show the city exactly what we need for this tax to be fair," she said, insisting there are misconceptions about how much revenue firms such as Pattison rake in from billboards.
Executive policy committee asked city staff to come up with a new billboard-tax proposal in early 2013. Transcona Coun. Russ Wyatt was the only EPC member to oppose the move.
"The sign industry is clearly quite powerful, if they can cause EPC to shake in their boots," he said. "They have powerful tentacles that reach into the corridors of city hall."
Katz, whose Winnipeg Goldeyes operate a digital billboard outside Shaw Park, recused himself from the EPC debate and vote. Browaty said the mayor made no attempt to influence his EPC colleagues in any way about the sign regulations or taxes.
Council will consider the sign regulations on Dec. 12. Katz will recuse himself from that debate and vote as well.
Executive policy committee decisions Wednesday:
Water and sewer rates: EPC approved a 4.3 per cent water-and-sewer rate hike that will see the average Winnipeg household fork over an additional $38 in 2013.
Dutch elm disease: Councillors approved a new strategy to save the city's elm canopy. The plan calls for the province to reinstate buffer zones in neighbouring municipalities and split the cost of tree removal, elm bark beetle control and tree-planting.
Surplus cash: EPC agreed with a plan to spend a projected year-end budget surplus of $8.5 million on whatever council chooses next year -- which pretty much ensures the cash will be used to offset the severity of a 2013 property-tax hike. Normally, surplus cash flows into a rainy-day fund.