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'SIN TAX' EYED LEVY ON ALCOHOL, CIGARETTES MAY HELP KEEP BILLS

An Erie County "sin tax" on cigarettes and alcohol may be enacted to fund the county's share of the roughly $60 million lease package being negotiated to keep the Bills in Buffalo, according to sources close to the negotiations.

A sin tax is part of the latest lease proposal being prepared by the county-state negotiating team for presentation to the National Football League team. While face-to-face talks have been stalled for two months, several recent developments suggest negotiations may be on track toward an agreement in the next few weeks.

Full details were not available, but the proposed tax is believed under consideration for cigarettes, liquor and beer. Whether the tax would be levied at the wholesale or retail level was not known.

Sin taxes can rake in big dollars. In November 1995, as the NFL's Cleveland Browns plotted their move to Baltimore, Cuyahoga County voters extended for 10 years a countywide sin tax designed to provide up to $175 million to renovate Cleveland Stadium. That sin tax -- which amounts to about 2 cents for a glass of beer or wine and 4.5 cents for a pack of cigarettes -- raised $16.1 million last year, according to Steven Letsky, director of accounting for the Cuyahoga County auditor.

Cuyahoga County's population is about 45 percent larger than that of Erie County. But even accounting for that difference, an Erie County sin tax apparently would have little trouble funding the county's share of any new 10- or 15-year lease.

The Cuyahoga County sin tax is levied at the wholesale level, so retailers determine how much to pass on to consumers.

That tax was enacted in 1990 to help pay for Jacobs Field, home of major league baseball's Cleveland Indians. Once those bonds are retired in 2005, the revenue will go toward a new football stadium.

"It was not a popular tax initially," Letsky said. "It barely passed, with maybe 51 or 52 percent of the vote, but I think overall people have pretty much accepted it. You don't hear many complaints about the sin tax now."

Like an increase in the sales tax, an Erie County sin tax would require a home-rule request from the County Legislature, State Legislature approval and then a two-thirds vote by the County Legislature.

Why a sin tax?

Process of elimination, for one thing. County Executive Gorski has pledged repeatedly not to fund the lease agreement on the backs of county property-tax payers. Raising the sales tax in the county from its current 8 percent would be politically impractical.

The sin tax remains the most palatable for a politician, who can rationalize that it will bring in additional revenue, hurt only those people who smoke or drink and even discourage some people from those unhealthy habits.

County Legislature Chairman Charles M. Swanick, D-Kenmore, had not heard about the sin-tax proposal and would not comment on it specifically. But he did not throw cold water on the idea.

"The County Legislature accepts the notion that a new revenue would have to be implemented to cover the cost of any agreement," Swanick said. "There is no support in the Legislature for using the property tax or sales tax for this project, because this is a specific project."

Scott Brown, Gorski's spokesman, also refused to comment on a sin tax. "There are a number of options under consideration, but I can tell you that an increase in the property tax or sales tax is completely off the table," Brown said. "The deal we're working toward would not cost most county residents a dime."

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