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GAME PLAN NEEDED NOW TO KEEP THE BILLS AROUND

IF BUFFALO WANTS to keep the Bills, it needs to move now -- before they do.

Local power brokers have to educate themselves on the business of pro football. They need to understand the tax considerations Bills owner Ralph Wilson faces, because that's what will determine whether -- if not when -- the Bills go.

Wilson is in no rush to renegotiate a Rich Stadium lease that expires in three years. He shouldn't be, not when his leverage increases virtually every day. And not when a long-term lease would reduce the team's market value.

Wilson's straight-arm to lease negotiations was one of a string of developments that don't bode well for the Bills' future here.

Sure, Wilson sprinkles in reassuring words. But anyone who thinks the Bills are locked into Buffalo for the foreseeable future also believes computers are a fad.

There's a bigger picture here than a lease renewal. It involves the humongous prices people pay for NFL teams and the desperate lengths cities go to get them. It involves a 76-year-old owner whose contractual obligation to this region ends in two years. Who's thinking more than ever how to best transfer the profits from his investment in the Bills to his children.

More than anything else, the Bills' long-term future here hinges on Ralph Wilson's tax considerations. We don't pretend to know the details of Mr. Wilson's finances. And we hope the man, who still plays tennis regularly, lives to be 100.

But, like any father, he's thinking of his children -- children who may eventually be left with a valuable football team and a huge tax bill. A bill so big they might have to sell the team to pay it.

That's why Wilson recently told The News' Vic Carucci he's "wrestling" with the question of future ownership.

"I'd like to see the team stay in the family," Wilson said. "But, of course, with the estate tax the way it is today, it's a difficult proposition."

If the team doesn't stay in the family, it goes to someone else.

The estate tax is the government's share should team ownership pass to Wilson's children.

"With the inheritance tax and other taxes, he could be looking at a 60 percent tax rate," said Ed Northwood, an estate tax expert with Hodgson, Russ, Andrews, Woods & Goodyear.

The Bills are worth about $200 million. At 60 percent, that's more than $100 million to Uncle Sam.

The Miami Dolphins didn't remain in the Robbie family for precisely that reason.

Joe and Elizabeth Robbie both died in 1990. They left their children the team -- and the $54 million estate tax bill that came with it. After familial squabbling, the heirs sold the Dolphins (to Wayne Huizenga for $138 million) to pay the bill.

When Tampa Bay Bucs owner Hugh Culverhouse died last year, ownership was transferred to a trust and offered to the highest bidder. The Buccaneers, perhaps the worst team in NFL history, were sold for $192 million. (The Culverhouse heirs presumably were hit with a tax bill of about $100 million).

Compared to Wilson's eventual tax concerns, lease concessions from the county amount to tape-and-shoulder-pad money.

Wednesday, Wilson endowed Canisius College with a $500,000 sports scholarship. It was an indication of his generosity. It was also an indication the man is thinking of his legacy and the value of his estate. Like many older wealthy folks, he prefers to give his money to a worthy institution, rather than leave the government a huge chunk.

It's time we all woke up and smelled the pigskin.

This area can't be complacent. There's a legion of prospective buyers, in such football-less cities as Toronto, Memphis, St. Louis and Baltimore, eager to throw exorbitant sums at team owners. Waiting to pounce should a door open.

That's why local power brokers, whether organized by Dennis Gorski or a business leader like M&T's Bob Wilmers, need to forge a relationship with Wilson now.

The idea is to devise ways to keep the Bills in Buffalo -- from strategies to ease Wilson's eventual tax burden to forming a prospective ownership group. Buffalo needs to act like it doesn't have a team and is trying to get one. Because, by most indications, that's the field we'll eventually be playing on.

The time to move is now. Not when Memphis and Toronto are knocking on Ralph Wilson's door.

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