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Editorial: Tax break for Bills is hardly worth the ill will

There’s little doubt the Buffalo Bills need a new practice field – or at least more practice – but given how much money taxpayers already shell out for the team, there is no reason they should be on the hook for the proposed 3-acre, outdoor field. The additional tax breaks, approved Friday by the Erie County Legislature, should have been a nonstarter.

The Bills are intrinsic to this community – a tremendous asset that its members and elected leaders worked hard to retain following the death of former owner Ralph C. Wilson. No one wants to say or do anything to make the organization think otherwise.

But the team shouldn’t play on that sentiment, either. If its leaders, including owners Terry and Kim Pegula, truly believed they need to be absolved of property taxes on this 3-acre plot of land, they needed to explain why, in detail.

It’s not as though this is about a lot of money. The dollars involved won’t make that much difference on the county tax rolls or on the Bills’ balance sheet. That’s part of the puzzle. Why even bother asking and provoking the inevitable negative response?

Part of the issue must arise from the fact that the county offers such tax breaks. It does so because reality requires it. New York State property taxes are high. The work of attracting and retaining businesses – and even residents – has required the state and its municipal governments to compensate with artificial strategies. They include the STAR program that defrays school taxes and other incentives to counteract the costs of sales and property taxes.

In that regard, at least, it’s easy to understand the Bills’ request. As a business matter, it makes no sense to forgo programs that could lower the cost of doing business. Why not try?

But there has to be a line. Taxpayers around the state and in communities that host professional sports teams already pay a mighty cost for that privilege. Most recently, state and county taxpayers underwrote a share of the $130 million renovation project at what was then Ralph Wilson Stadium.

Yes, there is a risk of appearing to “nickel-and-dime” the Pegulas, as Erie County Legislature Chairman John J. Mills, R-Orchard Park, worried. But the reverse is also true as the billionaire Pegulas appear to some to be nickel-and-diming county taxpayers.

In the end, the point is more about principle than the dollars involved. Majority Leader Joseph C. Lorigo, C-West Seneca, put it succinctly: “We shouldn’t be giving additional tax breaks to NFL teams.” It’s a position that is difficult to dispute.

The Bills certainly aren’t the only organization seeking to take advantage of publicly offered tax incentives, but the public offering them needs, at some point, to draw a firm but friendly line.

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