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ADS ON WHEELS WOULD EASE MONEY WOES, LAWMAKER SAYS

Picture city snowplows with NASCAR-style ads that promote local ski resorts.

Or city garbage trucks that cruise around sporting ads for plastic trash bags.

And the dozens of "take-home" cars assigned to city officials? They could hawk soft drinks, cell phones or other products.

If city officials want the privilege of driving around in city cars, some argue, they should make a few extra bucks for the cash-starved city. Even police cars and firetrucks might eventually become roving revenue-makers.

North Council Member Joseph Golombek Jr. plans to raise the issue at a meeting with other city officials Tuesday. Noting that more than 20 cities have signed contracts for police cruisers that bear advertising, Golombek thinks the time is right to explore selling ad space on hundreds of city vehicles. He admits he's leery about putting promotional messages on firetrucks or police cars.

"I've already talked with a couple of police officers who don't like the idea of arriving at emergency scenes in a car with advertising on it," Golombek said. "I understand their point. But what if it means being able to upgrade our fleet more often or avoiding more cuts?"

A suitable place to test the advertising waters might be with city sanitation trucks, snowplows and personal vehicles, Golombek said. But he's not ruling out expanding the program to public safety vehicles.

This isn't the first time the suggestion has been floated in City Hall. In 1995, the Masiello administration flirted with the notion of selling "naming rights" to city assets, including some buildings, swimming pools and vehicles.

The idea never went beyond the discussion stage.

But Golombek said things are different now. With the city facing a $28.6 million gap next fiscal year, he thinks all revenue-raising schemes must be considered.

He's not getting any argument from Deputy Streets Commissioner Paul V. Sullivan, who oversees all plows and garbage trucks.

"You can't afford to say 'no' to anything in this climate," Sullivan said. "When you're facing the kind of fiscal problems we are, you can't be narrow-minded."

How much money could the new marketing strategy generate? Golombek cited recent national media reports that some municipalities have hatched deals to get new police cars for $1 each in exchange for allowing advertising on the cruisers. The move will save thousands of dollars a year on every vehicle.

Two months ago, officials in St. Charles, Mo., voted to rent ad space on their garbage trucks. And San Diego is trying to negotiate a deal with an automobile manufacturer to get dozens of new vehicles in return for allowing advertising on lifeguard towers.

A recent audit found that Buffalo owns about 1,400 vehicles. Many would be unsuitable for advertising, including forklifts, backhoes and riding lawnmowers.

But if even a third of the vehicles were involved in the program, and each generated an average of $4,000 a year in revenue, it could potentially generate nearly $2 million.

"Why can't Buffalo ever be the first to try something?" Golombek asked.

The concept has some positives -- and a few potential negatives, said Alan Dick, a marketing professor at the University at Buffalo School of Management. He said it could create a new revenue stream for the city.

At the same time, he expressed a few "apprehensions." For example, he wonders if the ads could affect the way people view city government, especially if the ads are placed on public safety vehicles.

From an advertiser's vantage point, Dick warned, saturating the city with so many ads might hinder the effectiveness of campaigns.

Even those who are leaning in support of the notion concede that some stringent guidelines would be needed.

Sullivan said it would be unacceptable to have city trucks "totally covered" with gaudy or sloppy advertising. And Golombek admits no one would be thrilled to see police cruisers plastered with ads for "something like Preparation H."

But Golombek thinks most residents would see the wisdom of the rolling billboards, given the gloomy alternatives.

"If it means sparing the public from higher taxes, higher fees or service cuts, I think most people would be supportive," he said.

e-mail: bmeyer@buffnews.com

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