The worst thing about the half-million dollars owed to Erie County by a seriously delinquent hotel owner isn't the money, itself, though $500,000 is nothing the county's hard-put taxpayers are likely to sneeze at.
The worst of it is that while James A. Cosentino was withholding bed-tax payments for more than a decade, county leaders were shielding him from identification, citing a preposterous interpretation of a secrecy clause in the 1974 law that created the tax. That Cosentino was a generous political donor with connections in Albany was, we are sure, mere coincidence.
Cosentino's delinquency has been going on for at least 15 years, with county officials repeatedly granting Cosentino new repayment terms and Cosentino repeatedly failing to live up to them. Meanwhile, instead of going public with a public issue, elected leaders played a deceitful game with taxpayers by withholding the name of the person who was not paying his debts.
Cosentino's debt stems from his ownership of the now-defunct Radisson Hotel and Suites across from the Buffalo Niagara International Airport. His family owned the property since the early 1960s, operating it under several names. The hotel was sold in a foreclosure auction in 2003 and no longer is operating.
The matter finally came to a head last week, as county legislators considered clarifying the intent of the secrecy clause, which was to protect proprietary information, not the identities of tax delinquents. In the meantime, The Buffalo News obtained copies of county collection letters sent to Cosentino. The newspaper published the name in last Friday's editions.
We don't know that this episode will prompt Cosentino to be any quicker about paying what he owes to the county, but it ought to have a couple of official consequences. First is that the Legislature should go ahead and put on record the intent and limits of the secrecy clause. No county officials or tax delinquents should be able to take refuge behind this flimsy curtain.
The other is that county leaders need to ensure they have no other tax delinquents hiding behind this misused clause and, if so, that they identify them and make sure they pay up.