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ACCORD ON BILLS TENTATIVE LEASE DEAL AIMS TO KEEP TEAM FOR 15 YEARS

The Buffalo Bills, New York State and Erie County agreed today on a new 15-year Rich Stadium lease designed to keep the team here for at least the next six years -- provided enough luxury boxes and club suites are sold next year.

The agreement was clinched at midmorning, as Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson Jr., Gov. Pataki and County Executive Gorski signed off on the last remaining issue, the length of the lease for the Orchard Park stadium.

The state will pay $63.2 million for the total stadium improvement package -- including 76 new luxury boxes, new club seating and a new administration building. The county, through a tax on alcohol and tobacco products, would raise another $6 million a year to offset revenues lost and new costs assumed under the new lease.

"We've done what Los Angeles, Cleveland and Houston couldn't do, and that's hold onto our NFL team," said Gov. Pataki, who reached a "handshake agreement" over the phone with Wilson this morning. "With the support of the fans and the entire community, we can ensure that professional football is here to stay in Western New York."

Gorski took a similar view.

"Not only have we kept the Bills, but we've done it in a way that won't cost county property taxpayers a dime," Gorski said. "I feel that the deal is a winner for Bills fans, our taxpayers and the team itself."

The deal, which still requires legislative approval, ends a yearlong negotiating period that put the team's future here at stake. That had subjected Bills' fans to discussions about the region's economy, possible alternate destinations for the team and complaints from Wilson about season-ticket sales.

The new agreement, which would take effect next season, calls for a lease of 15 years, through 2012. Only next year, however, remains guaranteed.

The Bills and New York State will spend the next year marketing 76 new luxury boxes, in addition to the 88 currently inside Rich Stadium. If the 1999 revenue for all luxury boxes and club seats reaches $11 million, then the next five years would be guaranteed.

Starting in 2004, the seventh year, the Bills could buy out the remaining lease. That buyout figure declines each year, for $20 million in 2004, to $17 million in 2005 and $2 million in 2012.

But if the Bills are sold to someone else who moves the team out of town after the sixth year, the buyout figure would increase by 50 percent. In other words, if a new owner wanted to move in 2004, he would have to pay $30 million to buy out the remaining years.

The Erie County Legislature will be asked to convene Saturday to approve a home-rule message, asking the State Legislature to allow the county to impose a "sin tax" on alcohol and tobacco. Then the tax still would need approval from the State Legislature and two-thirds of the County Legislature.

The sin tax, which would start next year, would be about 1 cent per beer, 26 cents on a liter of liquor and 8 cents on a pack of cigarettes. Wine would be exempt.

Officials estimate that it would raise $6 million a year, which would replace county revenues from such things as parking, concessions and naming rights. Under the new lease, those revenues would go to the team.

The county also will pay all maintenance and game-day expenses, costs now shared by the team and the county.

The state funds for the new deal still have to be approved by the State Legislature. County lawmakers, who have begun their August recess, will hold a series of public hearings on the proposed deal. The County Legislature has final approval on the lease.

The $63.2 million in state money comes from a $125 million sports and recreation fund in the state budget agreement reached Tuesday. The fund is part of a $425 million package that includes money for cultural institutions.

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