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Sometimes, the mind boggles: is it opportunity knocking or is it simply a way to make taxation a little more palatable to corporations who usually seem allergic to the concept?

The city of Baltimore had a difficult problem. Faced, like many cities, with a budget crunch, the city council decided to shut down three fire companies — not because the city didn’t need the fire protection, but because there weren’t enough tax dollars to cover the costs. Trying to balance the books and keep the firefighters, the city did something unusual — it passed a resolution to sell advertising on fire trucks.

The New York Times reported on Baltimore’s move on Monday, citing the city’s attempt as just one of a legion of different attempts by American cities to raise new funds without being seen to raise taxes. Selling ads, offering naming rights and sponsorships, it’s like the sort of name-plastered civic works you see in dystopian science-fiction movies.

Some of the examples? McDonald’s has ads on Philadelphia’s transit fare cards. That city also renamed a transit station after a phone company in exchange for cash. KFC paid to do infrastructure repairs in some midwestern cities and got to slap its name on fire hydrants and manhole covers.

The town of Tyngsborough, Mass., even thought about tagging its police cars with sponsors’ names, a plan that ran afoul of concerns that sponsors might be seen to be getting quicker responses from grateful police.

It makes you wonder what you could find sponsors for — would Charmin or Royale want to buy naming rights for the Riverhead sewage treatment facility in St. John’s, or choose to be the proud sponsor of a new trunk line sewer? Would Glad Canada be, well, glad to have its name on the side of the city’s fleet of green garbage beasts?

Seeing Metrobus’s successful sales of bus “sleeves” to anything from news organizations on down, would there be an opportunity to dress up and market a CBC Ryan Snoddon-themed snowplow or two?

Smoke alarm and fire extinguisher companies might be downright delighted to buy a little banner space on the city’s fire truck fleet: after all, how many driving billboards come complete with lights and siren? The association with the fire department alone might be more than worth it for their corporate brands.

All in all, though, probably the real stumbling block is that advertising margins simply can’t make up the kind of money needed to fund civic works. You can buy the rights to name something “Mile One,” but the dollars don’t offset the huge costs.

To replace the cost of Baltimore’s three fire companies, you’d need more than US$5 million a year — and as hard as that message may be to take, the only real way to find that kind of money is with taxes that bring the costs to the user in a fair and balanced way.

A rose by any other name might smell as sweet. But the Royale Trunk Sewer would cost the same as it would with any other moniker.

Organizations: New York Times

Geographic location: Baltimore, Philadelphia, Tyngsborough, Mass.

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  • Anon
    June 27, 2012 - 17:14

    This is a consequence of FIAT currency, Fractional Reserve Banking and Compound Interest. Unfortunately, most of us still believe the crap we're spoonfed from the news and our politicians about derivatives, and europe and oil and terrorists so no one actually asks the simple question of, "what is money?". I have physical possession of pure gold... do you?

  • off the hook
    June 27, 2012 - 08:25

    Excellent article. There was a time when corporate tax rates were much higher and government could afford to provide quality services to the public. Over the past fifty years corporate tax rates declined to a fraction of where they once were. Now governments are telling us that we can no longer afford a prosperous civil society and we have to accept the “new reality.” If these companies can afford this kind of "largesse," then can afford to pay for all this advertising they can afford to pay their share of taxes.

    • Chantal
      June 27, 2012 - 12:42

      It isn't largesse; it's a tax-deductable advertising expense. Largesse implies generosity.