Want to do more to stamp out billboard blight in Kansas City? Sorry, but you wont get to vote on a tougher law this November.
By YAEL T. ABOUHALKAH
The Kansas City Star
Thats because Mayor Sly James and the City Council last week killed proposed new fees and taxes on the billboard industry. The money would have been used to make it possible to tear down signs that dont conform to the citys strict billboard ordinance.
The officials made the correct call.
Thats somewhat frustrating to concede because strongly enforcing the billboard law is absolutely right. However, City Halls proposed ways to better do that fell short.
James made one of the best points during a contentious council discussion that ended with him casting the deciding vote against an election.
Why, he asked, should the council let the industry off the hook and ask voters to approve a small fee of $100 per sign face as proposed by the billboard supporters themselves before looking at other ways to crack down on illegal signs?
Overall, the fee had been expected to produce just $60,000 a year.
The $100 fee was ridiculous, said banker Jonathan Kemper, who has helped lead the battle against billboard blight.
The proposal also included a troubling clause that would have eliminated the business license tax paid by billboard owners. That idea flew in the face of a recent recommendation by the Citizens Commission on Municipal Revenue. It has proposed restructuring the business license tax system, seeking to reduce special exemptions carved out for businesses over the years.
John Regenbogen, executive director of Scenic Missouri, also had concerns about the minor fee. He wrote in an email that the city needed a 2 percent gross revenue tax to allow for more proactive beautification projects and that it certainly looks like a $100 annual fee brings little to the table on its own.
The 2 percent gross revenue tax mentioned by Regenbogen had been the first idea proposed by council member Ed Ford a few weeks ago to battle billboard blight. The proposal would have generated more revenue than the $100 fee, or around $110,000 a year.
Billboard blight fighters including neighborhood leaders such as Carol Winterowd, Terrence Nash and Frances Semler backed the tax as a way to finally ramp up enforcement of the citys law.
But the industry immediately threatened to sue the city over the tax, continuing its strategy of playing hardball with officials. This is the same industry that in a couple of cases is demanding hundreds of thousands of public dollars as compensation to pay for lost revenue when it has to take down their signs that are in the way of different road projects.
Now that the council has rejected a November election, momentum on this issue needs to continue.
James, council members and the city staff need to find good ways to make it possible to rip down nonconforming signs, such as those that go blank for months at a time or that contain old, ripped content.
For starters, the city would have a better chance of enforcing the billboard law if it took the basic steps of sending someone out to determine where all of the billboards are and what condition they are in. James suggested something like that last week.
The mayor understandably seemed frustrated that city officials had not yet taken some common sense moves to deal with this problem before looking for more money.
Eventually, a higher fee of, say, $200 a sign face raising more than $100,000 annually could be a good solution.
Contrary to what billboard owners are contending that theres an assault under way to get rid of their signs something better should be happening at City Hall.
Elected officials must be vigorous in removing dilapidated and illegal signs. That would be a well-earned victory for Kansas Citians.