21 Aug 2014
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Billboard Tax Faces Full City Council

Councilman Bill Henry believes a tax on billboards could be part of an alternative to raising the city's bottle tax.

Billboard Tax Faces Full City Council

Councilman Bill Henry’s proposed will go before the whole City Council on Monday, but it’s unknown if the bill has the votes to pass.

Henry, who represents the York Road corridor, said that so far, he has spoken to several of his colleagues that told him they weren’t opposed to the bill, but heard rumors it doesn’t have enough votes to pass.

"No one has said 'I’m not going to vote for this and I know seven other [council members] who won’t vote for this,'" Henry said.

He attributed the rumors to lobbyists who oppose the tax.

Calls seeking comment from Clear Channel, the company that owns the vast majority of the billboards in the city, were not returned.

"That’s what lobbyists say when they want to kill something, when they don’t have a better way [to fight legislation]," Henry said. "They can’t kill this on merit."

Councilman Nick Mosby, who represents parts of Hampden, Medfield and Hoes Heights, said that he’s still trying to decide where he stands on the proposed tax and will look into it further during the weekend.

"It’s really interesting. I haven’t got an opinion yet," Mosby said.

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, who represents parts of Hampden, Roland Park and Charles Village, said that she supports the proposal to tax billboards.

"The fact is that, however, it is a commercial enterprise that is one of the few that has not been specifically taxed, and we certainly need the revenue as the current budget indicates."

The proposed tax of $5 per square foot for advertising more than 10 square feet and $15 per square foot for electronic advertising could bring in as much as $1.5 million to the city.

Henry touts the proposed billboard tax as part of an alternative to a proposal to i by 3 cents to pay for new school construction.

He said the billboard tax could replace a third of the revenue the bottle tax increase is anticipated to generate, and that increasing the amount of money going to school construction from revenues from a proposed slot casino could eliminate the need for a bottle tax increase.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake’s administration has opposed shifting projected revenue from slots because those funds have been earmarked for property tax relief since state voters approved slot machine gambling.

Earlier this year, the City Council voted to approve a property tax credit—championed by Rawlings-Blake—that will reduce city property taxes by 20 cents in eight years. Anticipated revenues from a proposed city slots casino primarily fund that tax credit.

Henry, Clarke and Councilman Carl Stokes tried to delay the council from last month but failed. Stokes and Clarke were the only council members who voted against approving the plan and Henry abstained.

Baltimore City currently has the highest property tax rate in the state at $2.268 per $100 of assessed value, more than double that of neighboring Baltimore County.     

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Henry said he supports taxing billboards as opposed to a bottle tax because the outdoor ad tax doesn't place city businesses at a competitive disadvantage. But advertisers want to reach city residents and will pay to do so. 

"So we're going to make them pay for that privilege," Henry said.

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