Somewhere out there is somebody who owes us a half-million dollars.
He is in the hotel business, so presumably he can pay -- although the bill is 14 years late. We do not know who he is, because politicians -- taking cover behind privacy concerns -- are protecting his identity.
He needs to be brought in, before $500,000 vanishes forever.
The unnamed hotel owner, for 14 years and through two administrations, owes a half-million dollars on a bed-tax debt that dates back to the 1970s.
The bed tax is a 5 percent charge that larger hotels add to every guest's bill. The money partly funds the Convention and Visitors Bureau. It took a lot of guests, a lot of nights and a lot of 5 percents to build a $500,000 debt mountain.
The bed tax money is used to promote tourism, which brings people to the region -- people who stay in local hotels and pay the bed tax. It is a nice, tight circle. A bed tax paid mainly by out-of-towners is used to attract more out-of-towners.
The bed tax money is funneled through the county. Every hotel owner ponies up. Some are sometimes late. But just one -- identified in a county audit as "Beta" -- carries this much debt for this long. It is bad enough that we pay to bloated governments 8.75 cents of every dollar we spend. It is bad enough that our collective tax load could buckle Superman's knees. What is worse is watching county officials shrug and shuffle since 1993 over a $500,000 debt.
If we are late with a tax bill, the collector knocks on our door. "Beta" slides for 14 years on a six-figure debt, and gets a full book of chances.
The county has gone after "Beta" -- whom sources say has political connections -- with the urgency of a cat dozing in the sun. Fourteen years and three payment plans and still $500,000 is missing. The infuriating irony is "Beta" is stiffing the convention bureau that funnels business to his hotels.
"It's outrageous," said hotel owner David Hart, recent head of the CVB board. "He has used public funds for personal capital. He has gotten away with it, because [county officials] have let him."
Joel Giambra's collection point man, after prodding from Comptroller Mark Poloncarz, said he is ready to turn up the heat. After all these years, I wonder if he can find the stove.
It is not as if the county is rolling in dough. Since the 2004 red/green budget fiasco, the county diverted millions of bed tax dollars to fill budget holes -- which ticked off underfunded tourism officials. County officials lately care as much about covering "Beta's" tracks as collecting his debt -- although he recently made a $42,700 payment.
The Buffalo News filed Freedom of Information requests to unmask "Beta" and uncover the mystery of the unpaid $500,000. Poloncarz and other county officials claim a local law protects the identities of hotel owners, with county officials punishable for violations.
But The News merely wants public documents, not protected information. Identifying the deadbeat, putting public pressure on his head and slapping liens on his properties may be the only way to collect the debt and cover taxpayers' backs. The county had 14 years, through the rise and fall of Dennis Gorski and Giambra, and got nowhere. It is past time for Plan B.
"Why did the county let this slide so long?" hotelier Hart asked. "If ["Beta"] closes shop, we will never get the money."
Instead of covering "Beta's" back, county officials should be reaching for his wallet. None of us escapes the odious 8.75 percent sales tax or crushing property taxes. Yet "Beta" slides since the early '90s on a half-million dollar bill.
We want a name, we want an explanation and -- most of all -- we want the money.