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Billboard Tax Discussions Heat Up


Pittsburgh City Council has heard from the public on both sides of the argument over a proposed ten percent tax on billboard advertising, and now the measure will be moved to a preliminary vote.

At a public hearing on Tuesday, most people testifying supported the new levy on advertisers, with many arguing that the billboard companies pay very little in property taxes despite the size and presence of the structures.

Brookline Chamber of Commerce Vice President Nathan Mallory said many small local businesses can't afford billboard advertising, so the ads' value to the community is questionable.

"Billboards are just there, something we live with," said Mallory, "but without compensating for the visual pollution and counterintuitive neighborhood planning we spend so much time to preserve."

Another supporter of the tax, Mike Dawida of Scenic Pittsburgh, said he has some reservations that the new levy could lead Council to permit more billboards to increase tax revenue.

"You have to do this, but I would try to figure something out that would make sure they don't get more billboards," said Dawida, addressing Council. "Don't fall in love with the revenue, is what I'm saying, even though you need it."

The new tax is expected to generate as much as $4 million per year if passed.

John Camin, legal counsel for Lamar Advertising, said the billboard company would sue the city if the tax passes -- even though a similar law in Philadelphia was upheld by Pennsylvania courts.

"We intend to take the case to federal court," said Camin. "This is an impermissible tax on personal property, which was not raised in the [Philadelphia] case. There are constitutional issues that were not raised in the case. This is also a violation of the Pennsylvania constitution, specifically the special law section, also not raised in that case."

However, City Council President Darlene Harris said she thinks billboard companies like Lamar should voluntarily agree to pay more in taxes in exchange for city services like street paving.

"There are good people out there that understand that the city is a strong resource of theirs and that they should be helping the city in some manner," said Harris. "I wish the billboard companies would see it that way."

The measure could get a preliminary Council vote as early as next Wednesday.

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