Should hotels hawk deals on Suffolk's cultural affairs website? Could banks buy banner ads on the county economic development home page?
A lawmaker's proposal to allow advertisements on the handful of non-.gov sites that Suffolk controls has stalled at County Executive Steve Bellone's office, which questions the practice's legality despite its new popularity nationwide as a revenue-generator for cash-starved municipalities.
The debate, scheduled to continue Tuesday in the legislature's education and information technology committee, began in June, when Legis. Tom Cilmi (R-Bay Shore) introduced a bill authorizing a "sponsorship" program for the few county websites with .com and .org domains. They include suffolkbetterforbusiness.com and suffolkartsandfilm.com.
With Suffolk facing a projected $300 million deficit, Cilmi said, his plan could raise funds of as much as six figures a year "relatively easily."
"We have to find very creative ways to deal with our fiscal challenges," he said.
From the Cook County, Ill., assessor to the Washington State Department of Transportation, numerous government entities have been raising revenue by hosting advertising on their non-.gov online portals.
Federal regulations prohibit ads on public websites registered with a .gov domain. That guided the decision announced last week by Bellone's office. Administration officials, who support all county sites ultimately becoming .gov, say they're uncomfortable possibly skirting U.S. General Services Administration policy.
"Based on our interpretation of the federal regulations, we believe we cannot advertise on our websites," said spokeswoman Vanessa Baird-Streeter. Suffolk will soon transfer remaining .com and .org domains to .gov to eliminate the possibility of some of its sites hosting ads, Baird-Streeter said.
Cilmi suggested to county officials that they not only leave the existing .com or .org domains, but create more, and "heavily promote" them while selling advertising.
Elsewhere, officials and companies involved with government Web ads see less of an issue than the Bellone administration, as they read the regulations as applying only to .gov domains.
Washington state's Department of Transportation started a pilot project last year that places select ads on its ferry vessel watch and traffic conditions pages. Banner ads for things like cruise packages and credit cards have raised about $5,000 a month, said a project development manager.
"We could be making $50,000 a month if we weren't so strict on what we allow and don't allow," said Tonia Buell, noting that ads for political and public issues are barred. "But the goal isn't to bring in as much revenue as possible, it's to see what kind of interest we get" from potential advertisers.
Bob Hoyler, president of Chicago-based Municipal Media Solutions, which helps governments sell Web ads, said many officials still have reservations, but their need for revenue is slowly bringing them around. "Folks are still reticent to place advertising near their content," he said, "but that's probably more inexperience than anything else."
In Suffolk's case, Cilmi plans to keep pushing the proposal in hopes of convincing the administration that selling ads on non-.gov county portals is not only legal, it's smart budgeting.
"Business as usual will not cut it anymore, not in today's climate, not with our current budget situation," he wrote in an email to officials.