Newsrack fee hike could create more empty boxes

Looking down the barrel of a $338 million budget shortfall, the mayor and board of supervisors moved last month to double the permit fees from $30 to $60 on publications using the city's fancy green newsracks.

Supervisor Bevan Dufty argued that the fee increases couldn't be avoided. "We didn't have a lot of wiggle room in this budget," he says, "very little at all."

But there's a major flaw in Dufty's reasoning: Many of the existing box spaces in the newsrack "pedestals" are already empty, and raising the fees may just create more empty spaces.

Alex Popovics of the Newsrack Fairness Coalition, which represents 50 publishers, says smaller publishers will be forced to cut back on the number of box spaces they lease. "Now because of the financial barrier, smaller publishers will have to consolidate, which will decrease their ... presence," he says. "There is a chance that a lot of the pedestals will be partially empty."

Currently there are 550 fixed-pedestal newsracks, containing 4,300 box spaces, spread out through downtown, Civic Center, Fisherman's Wharf, and the Castro. Mega outdoor advertising company Clear Channel, which signed a contract with the city in 2003 to install and maintain the pedestals in exchange for the right to sell ads on their exteriors, will install another 450 pedestals in outlying neighborhoods by 2013.

The Department of Public Works says the higher permit fees will go toward the salaries of two full-time employees who will manage the program. But Popovics says the major cost is upfront in surveying future pedestal locations, and that once they are installed, the fees are required by law to return to a minimal rate. But the problem is the city has given Clear Channel too much time to install the pedestals. "Originally it was supposed to be done in five years, and they have extended it to ten," Popovics says. "That's why we are screwed, because we have to pay these high fees for twice as long."

In the meantime, local news publishers are hinting they may sue the city for violating their free speech rights.

The fee increase poses a significant financial hit for your ever-humble SF Weekly, which will have to pay $16,800 more in fees than it currently shells out for its 280 box spaces. Hey, that money could otherwise go to a worthwhile cause, such as raises for dedicated and hardworking reporters.

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