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AMUSEMENT TAX MAY JOIN BED TAX TO LIFT REVENUES

The Niagara County Legislature may have future plans for a new amusement tax to supplement a hotel and motel "bed tax" it will vote on tonight.

The 7 p.m. meeting will include a vote on a home-rule message asking the State Legislature to give the county permission to impose the $1-a-night bed tax.

That is estimated to bring in more than $850,000 in revenue, which the county says it needs to avoid abolishing the tourism office in the 2002 budget. The office is on the list of cuts needed to avoid a property tax increase higher than 5 percent.

During Monday's Finance Committee meeting at which the bed tax was approved 6-1, Legislator Lee Simonson said the county attorney's office had been reviewing additional taxes on tourist attractions.

"We're singling out the hotel owners, which admittedly is unfair," said Simonson, R-Lewiston. "There are other attractions in Niagara Falls that could be taxed. We had our county attorney look at that and it is not a dead issue."

Simonson said, "There could actually be a greater source of revenue from tourists who don't stay overnight."

He specifically listed the Maid of the Mist boat rides and the recently instituted hot-air balloon rides as Niagara Falls attractions that could be targets for taxation.

Legislator Daniel L. Mocniak, D-Niagara Falls, said the county has three choices.

"Either we eliminate tourism (promotion), or we have tourism and the property owners pay for it, or we impose this tax," Mocniak said.

Legislator Dennis F. Virtuoso, D-Niagara Falls, who first suggested the bed tax, said an amusement tax law, which would also need Albany approval, needs to be drawn so it is definitely not considered a sales tax.

That's because Niagara Falls and Lockport have laws entitling them to pre-empt the sales taxes on hotels, restaurants and amusements. "The county doesn't see a lot of that," Virtuoso said.

County Treasurer David S. Broderick told the committee that the county is seeing less from sales taxes of all kinds. His latest report, through the end of August, showed the county is now 3.7 percent behind last year's sales tax receipts.

If that rate continues through the end of the year, the county will have $1.8 million less than it anticipated in sales tax.

Continuing with bad news, Broderick reported the county will undershoot its target for investment income, too. The treasurer blamed declining interest rates. Most of the county's unspent money is invested in short-term certificates of deposit that are paying 3.5 percent or less.

Broderick said the county has earned $700,000 in interest income so far this year, but with rates staying low, there is no chance the county will match last year's $1.3 million.

Meanwhile, the committee continued to sound determined to make the towns pay extra for Sheriff's Department road patrols, on top of their residents' property taxes.

No action was taken, but the chances of cutting the Sheriff's Department budget dimmed after Assistant County Attorney R. Joseph Foltz reported opinions in the last 20 years by the state comptroller and attorney general that seemed to indicate road patrols are mandated.

Mocniak, who first suggested charging the towns for patrols, said he was assuming they are not state-mandated. Foltz said there's nothing in the law that requires them, and there don't seem to be any court cases in the field either.

Foltz said he was unsure if there is a definite mandate and said he needed to do more research. He also noted that if there is a mandate, it doesn't demand any particular level of service.

"We need to find a way to make this work," said Legislator Robert R. Villani, R-Town of Niagara. "The cities are paying for a service they're not getting. . . . This is an unfair distribution of taxes. We should be charging for services rendered."

The committee asked Sheriff Thomas A. Beilein to report back Oct. 1 on "how much it costs to keep one deputy on the road," as Mocniak put it.

e-mail: tprohaska@buffnews.com

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