Advertisements may pop up on Luzerne County’s website, vehicles and buildings to generate revenue for the cash-strapped government.
Outgoing county Controller Walter Mitchell suggested the idea last week, and several council members say it’s worth pursuing.
Mitchell went as far as proposing advertising inserts in tax mailings.
Advertisements appear on county Transportation Authority buses and at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport. Mitchell said county officials should capitalize on the same opportunity.
“It’s income that we don’t now have, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be utilizing our space to post advertising,” Mitchell said.
Advertising handled “in good taste” is an example of creative revenue needed in a county that raised taxes 8 percent and furloughed 22 workers to balance its 2014 budget, he said.
“We spend an awful lot of time trying to reduce expenses, but I don’t think we spend anywhere near the time we need seeking sources of new revenue,” said Mitchell.
Unbeknownst to Mitchell, it’s not the first time advertising has been proposed.
Public Financial Management (PFM), the county’s outside financial advisor, suggested taking advantage of advertising and naming rights revenue in 2005 as part of the county’s fiscal recovery plan.
Prior commissioners praised the idea and briefly discussed it but never acted on pledges to make it happen.
Governments across the country obtain revenue by selling advertising space on the following, according to PFM, which still provides financial expertise to the county:
• Billboards and other outdoor signs on public property.
• Street furniture like benches, public toilets, trash receptacles, informational kiosks and bike racks.
• Inside public restrooms, civic centers, parking garages and recreation venues.
• Parking garage receipts, tax bill inserts and parking tickets.
• Municipal websites.
Options for naming rights could include the county-owned Moon Lake Park in Plymouth Township and the River Common park along the Susquehanna River in downtown Wilkes-Barre, which includes a river landing and amphitheater.
Billboards or signs on high-traffic county-owned property and kiosks or benches in and around county buildings were other options mentioned by past commissioners.
PFM representatives cautioned the county must maintain control over advertising content and placement. For example, cigarette or alcohol ads may be prohibited.
Buses with ads
The county Transportation Authority, which is governed by a county council-appointed board, publicly sought proposals from outside advertising companies in November 2012 to maximize revenue on buses, said authority Executive Director Stanley Strelish.
Direct Media USA, which handles bus advertising contracts throughout the county, was selected after agreeing to pay the authority $12,000 per year or 55 percent of revenue, whichever is greater, he said.
The authority received $18,000 from bus advertising last year, and Strelish expects revenue to increase in 2014 as Direct Media increases its client base. The company also is trying to secure advertisements on authority vans servicing the disabled.
The authority has final say over the types of advertising, though no content controversies have surfaced, he said.
The switch to an outside advertising freed up authority employees who don’t have the expertise or time to attract advertisers for buses, he said.
“It generates pure profit. It’s a win-win,” Strelish said.
County Manager Robert Lawton presented Mitchell’s advertising suggestion and other ideas to division heads last week and asked them to provide recommendations on how to proceed.
Councilman Harry Haas said he’s open to the concept and recommends the administration start with a list of all properties and resources that could be used for advertising.
“As long as it’s tasteful, fair and open to any business, I’d consider it,” Haas said.
Council Chairman Tim McGinley expects hearty discussion because advertising on buses and in airports may be viewed differently than corporate pitches on the county website or attached to tax bills.
“It would have to be done in a professional and dignified manner to not make a mockery out of it. You wouldn’t want banners all over the front entrance to the courthouse,” McGinley said.
Ethical issues about advertising content must be weighed, he said. For example, political advertisements may not be permitted on the county website, which services the bureau that oversees county elections, he said.
“It’s not quite as simple as it appears at first glance, but the county has to come up with more creative ideas rather than going back to the property owners for revenue every time,” McGinley said.
Incoming Councilwoman Eileen Sorokas, who takes office Monday, said advertising opportunities must be open to all, and the positioning of the advertisements must make it clear the county is not endorsing any companies.
Sorokas said some were uncomfortable with a display of seasonal trees in the courthouse sponsored by nonprofits that receive county funding.
“I’m all for finding new revenue, but this really needs to be discussed. It’s really a gray area,” Sorokas said.
Councilman Rick Williams said he looks forward to a recommendation from the administration on advertising.
“We need to turn over every opportunity to bring in revenue for the county,” Williams said.