|By Matthew Spina, The Buffalo News,
N.Y.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
May 18--For about 15 years, Erie County has been trying to collect more than $500,000 in hotel occupancy taxes, plus penalties, from a single hotel owner, county auditors said Wednesday.
The auditors refuse to identify the owner, citing confidentiality clauses in the county law that authorized a "bed tax" in 1974. The Buffalo News is seeking the identity with a request for documents under New York's Freedom of Information Law.
County Comptroller Mark C. Poloncarz said the owner's first repayment agreement was drawn in 1993, when Dennis Gorski was county executive. The agreement was redrawn twice since then as the owner fell behind in 1996 and again in 2003, after Joel A. Giambra became county executive.
The report researched and written by Poloncarz's auditing staff and made public this week concludes the Giambra administration should do more to collect late bed tax payments from hotels and motels.
Giambra's point man in that effort says he has made efforts to enforce the repayment deal but now wants to turn up the heat.
"I am ready to call the entire agreement," said Joseph Maciejewski, Giambra's director of real property tax services, who said that under the latest payment schedule, the owner is 20 months behind on payments representing more than $100,000.
The county can seize assets, Maciejewski said, but an enforcement strategy will have to be formed with input from County Attorney Laurence K. Rubin.
Maciejewski, too, refused to identify the hotel owner, citing the county law that penalizes officials who even indirectly reveal a hotel or motel's occupancy rates. He said reminders to pay up have been made and the owner has advanced bed taxes charged on rooms rented since 1993.
Late last summer, Maciejewski went to the county attorney's office to suggest legal action. But Maciejewski soon became distracted by the October snowstorm, he said, and the need to work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency on aid worth millions of dollars.
After that, he began work on an agreement to let an outside company pay for the right to collect and keep overdue property tax payments the government has been unable to collect itself.
"Honestly, it was not a priority at that time, and I take responsibility for that," he said of the attempt to force payment. "But I was pulled away from this for almost three months."
This is not the first time county officials have been faulted for failing to collect occupancy taxes. In 2002, then-Comptroller Nancy A. Naples said that over a 30-month period the county had failed to collect $1.1 million from more than 50 hotels and motels.
Maciejewski at the time said the Naples audit would prompt him to more aggressively pursue delinquent payers.
Poloncarz asked Wednes- day: Why draw up a payment schedule if it's not going to be enforced?"
"It's fair to say that until we commenced this audit and put the department back on notice, they weren't doing anything," he said.
His auditors found that most of the 110 applicable hotels and motels advance on time the 5 percent bed tax on room rates -- 3 percent for establishments with 30 rooms or less.
Auditors found that in 2006, when the county's room tax revenue rose again, to $6.5 million, Maciejewski waived penalties and interest worth about $20,000 on payments that dribbled in days late.
Since the start of this year, the comptroller's office has taken on more of the effort to collect taxes and fees -- a change approved by voters in November when they agreed to update the County Charter. Starting with the next quarterly payment due at the end of this month, Poloncarz's staff, not Maciejewski's, will ensure that bed taxes are turned over to county government.
Copyright (c) 2007, The Buffalo News, N.Y.
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