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Given the realities of professional sports, public money has to be put on the bargaining table if the Buffalo Bills are to remain a part of this community in the years to come. Teams like the Bills hold all the good cards in negotiations with communities because of what they add to a town's quality of life, national reputation and marketing capability.

Other communities stand ready to snag them with generous deals when the hometowns falter.

Some citizens might not like admitting it, but losing the Bills would be a severe jolt to Buffalo and its environs. We are a comparatively small-market city that, like it or not, derives a far greater share of our national exposure and identity from sports teams than do places like New York City and Los Angeles.

At the same time, however, politicians are justifiably leery of increasing general taxes to pay for the Rich Stadium improvements that must be made to satisfy the Bills and get the long-stalled stadium lease renewal completed.

County Executive Gorski has repeatedly said he does not want the cost carried by property taxpayers. He has a good point. They do plenty of lifting already. It also would be wise to avoid an increase in the sales tax, already peaking at an unpopular 8 percent. Putting it higher would be non-competitive.

So what to do?

Although details are incomplete, reports have it that the county may fund its share of the stadium deal with a tax on cigarettes, liquor and beer. Sometimes such levies go by the name of "sin tax" although sin generally involves a much wider range of activities than puffing burning tobacco or downing a variety of alcoholic liquids.

The tax would be an attractive answer because cigarettes and booze are items that people do not have to buy. They are not necessities of life. It could be considered, in fact, that using them falls in the same "recreational" range of experiences as watching the Bills. Compared to the property or sales taxes, this one is voluntary.

And if the tax encouraged moderation with alcohol and tobacco, so much the better.

Evidently, the "sin taxes" will not have to be excessive to fund the county's share of a Bills deal. Cuyahoga County, where Cleveland is located, gets about $16 million a year for sports venues with a tax that amounts to 2 cents on a glass of beer or wine and 4.5 cents on a pack of cigarettes. Even adjusted for Erie County's smaller population, such a tax seems adequate for its purposes here.

Apparently the "sin tax" revenue will enter negotiations whenever Gov. Pataki and Gorski can meet with Bills owner Ralph Wilson and his advisers. Time is running short. The Bills lease runs out at the end of the coming football season.

If new luxury boxes are to be ready to produce team revenue for the 1998 season, construction should start immediately after this year.

The tax itself has some hurdles to clear. The County Legislature needs to pass a home rule message for Albany, the State Legislature must approve a law allowing the tax and the County Legislature must vote to impose it by a two-thirds margin.

All involved need to recognize reality. Keeping the Bills in Buffalo is not a no-cost proposition, comfortable as that may sound. The county must show its money. Compared to the alternatives, a "sin tax" looks like the way to go.

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