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'SIN TAX' TO KEEP BILLS WINS FEW BLESSINGS

They know their Buffalo Bills football inside the Big Tree Inn, just a few booming Chris Mohr punts from Rich Stadium.

They also have been known to knock down a beer or two and even smoke a few cigarettes.

So is there a better place to gauge public opinion toward a new Erie County "sin tax?"

County officials are considering a new tax on alcohol and cigarettes to fund the county's share of a roughly $60 million lease agreement with the Bills.

Judging from the early returns, a sin tax would not be too popular among bargoers, although nobody had any better suggestion for raising millions of dollars to keep the Bills in Buffalo. And opinion at lunchtime Wednesday seemed divided on whether the county should ante up that money or let the Bills leave.

Some opposed the sin tax on principle.

"They already tax the heck out of tobacco and alcohol," said John Reardon, 32, an electrical production manager from the Town of Tonawanda. "The dog is dying. How much more are you going to beat it?"

Reardon knows about those taxes. He was sipping a Coors Light and puffing on a Merit cigarette in between comments.

The Bills are a huge boost to the region, Reardon said, so he is not opposed to the county's paying its share to keep the team here. He also thinks that a sin tax might be the lesser of two evils.

"I can see that the sin tax might be the most logical way to raise the money, as opposed to property or sales tax," he said. "But as a 'sinner,' I'm against it."

Two Hamburg men eating their lunch at the bar -- Tom Partridge, 31, and Lance Kelly, 29 -- think that it's time to turn off the financial spigot for owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr. and his Bills.

"That man's got beaucoup bucks," Kelly said. "We're already paying our fair share. It's time for him to pay his fair share."

Partridge thinks that taxing people any more to keep the Bills here is "absolutely ridiculous."

"If they want to walk, let them walk," he said.

As the two men poured their Labatt's Blue beer, Partridge quipped that beer drinkers might revolt at another tax.

"We're going to have the Erie County Beer Party, instead of the Boston Tea Party," he said. "We'll go down to the Buffalo Harbor and dump all the beer."

Bartender Frank Morlock, 25, had a different reason for opposing a sin tax. He considers it hypocritical.

"I don't mind paying the taxes, but not when they don't let you smoke inside the stadium, and they restrict the beer sales (after halftime)," he said.

Morlock acknowledged that under the circumstances, a sin tax might be the best option.

Those who make their living selling beer, predictably, oppose the proposed sin tax, which probably would add roughly 1 cent for a beer, 25 cents for a case and 5 cents for a pack of cigarettes.

A case of beer already carries $1.30 in federal excise tax, 40 cents in state excise tax and about $1.20 in sales tax, for a total of $2.90 per case, according to Gene Vukelic, president of Try-It Distributing Co.

Adding at least 25 cents more per case inside Erie County would send consumers to surrounding counties to stock up on their beer, Vukelic said. He also objected to the tax being borne by Erie County residents, when Bills fans from southern Ontario, Rochester, Syracuse and Albany enjoy the games.

What's Vukelic's alternative? A statewide sports lottery that would make funds available for stadiums across the state, he said.

About 8.5 million cases of beer are sold in Erie County every year, meaning that such a sin tax would raise more than $2 million per year just from beer sales.

"It's really inequitable for our industry to contribute $2 million . . . for eight or 10 games each year," Vukelic said. "It's not fair to put that on the backs of the small businessman and the common working man who enjoys his daily beer."

Patrick H. Hoak, the Hamburg town supervisor and president of the Innkeepers Association of Western New York, said the sin tax is properly named.

"It's sinful," he said. "It's another way of driving additional business out of our state."

Hoak pointed out that the number of local licensees has dropped by more than half in the last 32 years.

Since The Buffalo News reported Monday that the county is considering a sin tax, about 30 people have called County Hall to object, county officials said Wednesday.

"Nobody likes taxes, the county executive included," said Scott Brown, County Executive Gorski's spokesman. "But the reality in the NFL today is that it's going to cost money to keep the Bills here.

"If it's not going to come from property or sales tax, and if people don't want to pay a sin tax, then what's the alternative?"

"It's easy to say 'no new taxes,' " he added. "What's hard is keeping the Bills here and affecting the least number of people possible."

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