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Subsidy for Bills will hit new high
[January 18, 2009]

Subsidy for Bills will hit new high

(Buffalo News, The (NY) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Jan. 18--Erie County taxpayers will set a record for the Buffalo Bills in the 2009 season. Local taxpayer support for the team will average more than $900,000 for each game played in Western New York.

It's largely because the Bills now play a preseason and a regular season home game in Toronto rather than in Orchard Park's Ralph Wilson Stadium.

This corner of New York must make do with eight chances each year, no longer 10, to bask in the team's full economic might. But the taxpayer allowance for "game-day expenses" and for "operating expenses" to run Ralph Wilson Stadium will, nonetheless, tick upward again with a price-index adjustment.

This merging of events -- more money for the Bills with fewer home games played here -- will trigger the first $900,000-a-game season. The 2008 season just missed.

Here's the math. Erie County will:

--Set aside $4.2 million for operating and game-day expenses this year. It was $3.9 million last year.

--Continue to pay for stadium upgrades: $2.9 million for this year's improvements.

--Again provide the Sheriff's Office detail for game-day security, in addition to the private security firms the Bills hire. Using last year as a guide, the county will pay the deputies about $240,000 this year.

Add it up: $7.35 million. For the eight games to be

played in Orchard Park, that equates to about $920,000 a game from Erie County taxpayers -- for a team that last reached the playoffs in 1999, the second season under the team's current lease.

The lease expires after the 2012 season. Assuming the Bills and county leaders start talking in 2011, they'll negotiate with County

Executive Chris Collins. Collins says the Bills generate plenty of benefit for Buffalo and Erie County. That they will take $900,000 a game from the hometown taxpayers doesn't faze him.

"When it comes to quality of life, we have parks, we have culturals, and the Bills fit into what I will call that quality of life," Collins said. "Given the total size of our county budget, and what we do, I could put together an argument that the one cultural institution that we support that has all but 100 percent impact throughout the community is the Bills.

"Not everyone goes to the zoo," he said. "Not everybody goes to Chestnut Ridge Park, and so forth. Pretty much the whole community supports the Bills."

Assuming Collins and the Bills organization strike an agreement in 2011 -- Collins says no such discussions are going on now -- the pact would be put before the County Legislature that voters will select this November.

"Buffalo is a sports town," said one lawmaker, Democrat Thomas J. Mazur of Cheektowaga. He agrees the Bills give Western New York an identity, a rallying point and adrenaline for the economy. But he said the next lease should address the fact that home games are being played elsewhere by being "more generous to the taxpayer, and less generous to the Bills."

Is the lease truly generous?

Jeffrey C. Littmann, the Bills chief financial officer, says the Bills incur more stadium-related expenses than the government reimburses.

"Inflation has been 2 or 3 percent -- unless you have to buy something. Most of the stuff we have to buy has gone up a ton," he said, mentioning insurance and utilities in particular.

The Bills paid $5.5 million in stadium expenses for the most recently concluded lease year, which ended July 31, before the 2008 season. The largest single cost was the $1.7 million for utilities -- gas, electricity and water.

More than $1 million was spent on stadium salaries and more than $1 million on "general maintenance" -- plumbing repairs, trash disposal, window cleaning, pest control, but also for miscellaneous needs such as bottled water, soft drinks and office supplies.

The Bills also presented auto and travel expenses for certain staff -- usually security staff traveling to industry conferences, Littmann said. And the team presented $11,000 for "meals and entertainment."

But the lease allowed government reimbursement for $2.45 million of the Bills total stadium operating expenses, or less than half of the organization's costs.

For "game-day expenses," which generally involve game-day security, the cost of ticket takers, ushers, cleaning and snow removal, the team laid out $2.3 million. The government reimbursed $1.38 million.

Again, that was for the 2007 season, when the Bills played 10 home games at Ralph Wilson Stadium, two in the preseason and eight in the regular season.

The Bills will not present their breakdown for the 2008 season, when the team played two games in Toronto, until later this year. Littmann says the final list will show game-day expenses receding for the Toronto factor. But he said the team's expenses will still exceed what the county is willing to reimburse.

It was Littmann who, in October 2007, called on then- County Executive Joel A. Giambra to ask that he let the Bills play two of their home games in Toronto, where some business leaders were offering to host the team. The Bills could then expand their fan base and "mitigate the small-market handicap we face in today's NFL," Littmann wrote in a follow-up letter.

The Bills' stadium lease had been signed in 1998 by Giambra's predecessor, Dennis T. Gorski. The agreement assumed the Bills would play all of their home games in the county-owned stadium but let the team play home games elsewhere with county permission. Giambra in late 2007 quickly let them do so for the 2008 season, without trying to change any other terms.

Gorski had negotiated the contract as he headed into an election year. When completed, it was considered both an extravagance and a triumph for Erie County. While the deal committed a fortune in taxpayer money, some $125 million through its life, the county didn't have to build a new stadium, as some other cities were doing for their NFL franchises.

The full Legislature -- whose members are invited by the Bills to a home game each year -- ratified the pact in 1998. In doing so, lawmakers committed millions of public dollars to keep a 1970s-era stadium up to date.

Lawmakers also let the Bills keep "all stadium revenue." In other words, while Erie County once made money from the concerts and other events staged there, the Bills could from then on keep all stadium income.

A prime example of the windfall arrived on Jan. 1, 2008. The Bills collected the National Hockey League's rental fee, reportedly $250,000, for that day's "Winter Classic" hockey game in Ralph Wilson Stadium.

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