Closer watch on billboards

By Gregory Cappis

by Samantha Bohne, Contributing Writer

Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced new reforms on Oct. 9 that change the way Chicago billboards are regulated.

The new program will enforce stricter billboard inspections, which will help identify illegal billboards in the city, according to the mayor’s press release. The plan will also help city inspectors crack down on owners who do not have billboard permits.

“The proliferation of illegal and unregistered signs throughout Chicago has been keeping the city from utilizing potential revenue needed to deliver quality services to the taxpayers,” Emanuel said. “With an expanded approach to identifying illegal billboards and a more effective way of enforcing the city’s regulations, we’ll not only recover funds owed but ensure those who erect signs without proper permits and approvals are held accountable.”

Chicago’s Department of Buildings inspectors check approximately 37,000 signs semiannually, with another 18,000 examined at least once per year. This year, 704 signs have been cited for violating city codes.

Emanuel said investigators from the city’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protections will be empowered to write citations for illegal billboards and signs during their business inspections, which will increase enforcement and revenue.

The reforms are expected to bring in an additional $2.5 million in revenue, according to the mayor.

James Cicarelli, professor of economics at Roosevelt University, said although the additional revenue will not fix the city’s budget problems, every bit counts. Cicarelli argued that it’s as much a matter of principle as it is a revenue issue.

“The city has every right to go after these people, regardless of how much money it generates,” Cicarelli said. “Because if they don’t go out and get them, those who legitimately pay for billboards feel that they are being treated unfairly.”

Alderman Danny Solis (25th Ward) supported the reforms and said many owners have neglected to follow the law and get a proper permit.

“There are more signs in Chicago than valid sign permits,” Solis said in a statement released by the mayor’s office. “Greater enforcement should be used to bring more businesses into compliance with the law and reduce the amount of sign clutter in our neighborhoods.”

Stacy Raker, a spokeswoman for Solis, said the reforms are beneficial to the city because of the potential increase in revenue, as well as the decrease in the number of billboards currently permitted.

“There are many signs that currently do not conform to the city code,” Raker said.

She said the signs that do not comply with the code will be removed, which will reduce sign pollution in restricted areas. “Signs that do comply with the code but are not paying permit fees will benefit the city with new collections of revenue,” Raker said.

While Cicarelli supports the new reforms, he said this decision probably could have been made sooner.

“My hunch is, to some extent, this is probably independent in the budget shortfalls that sooner or later were going to get on Emanuel’s radar screen. It just happened to be later,” Cicarelli said.

Raker said the reforms could not have been made until the City Council’s Zoning and Building committees were combined.

Although the reforms are meant to crack down on illegal billboards, Raker said these changes won’t have an impact on businesses using billboards as a form of advertisement because the fees are not being changed.

Helen Demir, a project manager at Turk Electric Sign Inc.—a sign company in Chicago—said illegal signs usually end up costing double the price. Demir said permit prices vary depending on the sign’s size.

“I don’t feel that anyone really gets away in the end,” Demir said. “I mean, they might sneak a sign up here and there, but you eventually will get caught because the inspectors are [checking them] all the time.”

According to Demir, in order to legally put up a sign, companies have to fill out permit forms online and wait to get approval from the local alderman.

She said the process of getting permits for signs and billboards ensures the structure and engineering—including electrical work—of the sign are correct.