In billboard tax dispute, Lamar takes it to the streets



Natalia Rudiak was running late -- "like I usually am" -- as she was driving down Route 51 yesterday. But she wasn't in too much of a hurry to see a billboard on the opposite side of the street. Especially because it had her face on it.

"I literally saw the man putting the sign up," she said. "And I thought, 'They’ve made me a star!'"

That was probably not the ad's intention.

"Worst Economy in 50 Years!" reads the top half of the ad, in the style of a newspaper headline. And below, superimposed over a field of red, was Rudiak's smiling face, beside the words "Natalia Rudiak says: 'Let's raise taxes.'"

The billboard was put up by Lamar Advertising, the Louisiana-based advertising giant being targeted by a proposal -- cosponsored by Rudiak and city council president Darlene Harris -- to impose a 10 percent tax on billboard rentals. Harris and Rudiak say the tax could raise a couple million dollars a year -- money Harris says would be earmarked to help purchase new police cars as needed each year.

"We are trying to let people know that although City Council members Rudiak and Harris are portraying it as a tax on billboards, it is actually a tax that will be passed through to the advertiser," says Jim Vlasach, the company's real estate manager in Pittsburgh, in an e-mail. Lamar was sacrificing the revenue it could gain from paying spots on those billboard sites, he says, because, "We believe that full disclosure to the business community was necessary to get this information out."

Lamar's critics see another agenda at work.

Scenic Pittsburgh, an urban-beautification group that is hostile to outdoor ads, accused Lamar of "bullying tactics" that seek "to intimidate Pittsburgh City Council" by "using its billboard monopoly to influence local politics."

Harris says the ad is "very misleading," since it implies that Rudiak is proposing to raise taxes on everyone, rather than on a select industry. Harris is herself the subject of a billboard ad, that suggests the billboard is part of a "Darlene Harris tax plan" that includes levies on nonprofits and tuition. (Harris has indeed proposed such taxes, though none have been enacted.) Still, Harris says, The billboard "doesn't say 'City of Pittsburgh residents tax' -- which is the point here. I don't see residents coming out and saying, 'Tax us, not the billboards.'"

And unlike most advertisements espousing a political cause, the ads don't indicate who paid for them. "If the ad is paid for by a third party, then that party's information is usually contained on the billboard," Vlasach writes. But in this case, "Lamar is running these ads at its own cost as a public service."

Vlasach brushes aside claims that the ads are misleading: Harris and Rudiak, he says, "are the ones that want to raise taxes on the business that advertise in the city" -- despite "difficult economic times that affect everyone."

As for Scenic Pittsburgh's claims of bullying, Vlasach says, the nonprofit has "advocated that this tax be imposed regardless of whether it is legal to punish businesses that choose outdoor advertising."

"That makes no sense at all," counters Mike Dawida, executive director of Scenic Pittsburgh (and a former county commissioner). "It certainly is legal. [Lamar's] approach to everything is to say it's illegal. It's what they said about the ordinance passed in January [which set limits on electronic billboards], which was ruled legal. And in this case, there's not even a question about the legality of it." Philadelphia, he notes, already taxes billboard revenues.

"What's ironic is that we've never been overly enthralled with billboard taxes," adds Dawida (who, speaking to me from home, added, "I'm looking at this big picture of Natalia Rudiak out my window right now.") "We don't want to focus on that, because local governments are hard-pressed, and we're concerned about them becoming too enamored of the revenue. But as a city resident, I'm offended at how little they pay to support the roads that make it possible for people to see the ads." A tax on billboards, he says, "is as appropriate as a tax for parking cars or anything else."

Whether the billboards will have any effect remains to be seen; Vlasach did not respond to e-mailed queries about how many billboards Lamar was deploying, or whether it would take on other city officials who backed the tax. But when asked whether she was surprised to hear she appeared on a billboard, Harris laughed. "What can I say? I don't think I've ever seen a billboard with a politician's name on it that the politician didn't pay for."

Rudiak seems even less fazed. After seeing the ad, she says, "I was laughing all the way to the Liberty Tubes." Although one thing about the billboard did strike her as odd: Lamar, she says, apparently took the photo of her from the city's website. "But in the original photo, my dress was red."

Add a comment