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Erie County, Pennsylvania Getting Serious About Late Hotel Tax Payments;
Wants Motel Owner to Pay Up or Face Felony Criminal Charges

By Kevin Flowers, Erie Times-News, Pa.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Feb. 23, 2010--PAY UP -- or face criminal charges.

Erie County is delivering that message to the owner of the Travelodge at Route 8 and Interstate 90, who has failed for more than a year to turn over more than $200,000 in county hotel taxes.

Erie County Executive Barry Grossman said Monday that he and County Solicitor Gary Shapira have talked with District Attorney Jack Daneri about filing a charge of theft by failure to make required disposition of funds against Minesh Patel, general manager of Maha Laxmi Inc., which does business as the Travelodge, 6101 Wattsburg Road.

Grossman said the county has lost patience with Patel, who did not return a telephone message from the Erie Times-News seeking comment.

"I am outraged by that guy," Grossman said of Patel. "As far as I'm concerned, he should be in jail."

Grossman said he believes that Patel is "committing larceny every day because he continues to collect the tax, but he's not turning any of it over."

The charge contemplated by the county is a third-degree felony under the Pennsylvania Crimes Code, punishable by up to seven years in a state prison and a $15,000 fine.

The motel, the former longtime Ramada Inn, was sued by county government in March and later reneged on a five-year payment arrangement, according to county officials. It owes in excess of $200,000, including late tax payments and interest, county financial figures show.

Daneri said he is reviewing the county's written settlement agreement with Maha Laxmi and Patel, "then we will determine if criminal charges will be filed."

Daneri said his review should take less than two weeks to complete.

Daneri's predecessor, the late Brad Foulk, reviewed the situation with Maha Laxmi and Patel in March, and decided against filing criminal charges.

That same month, the county filed a lawsuit over the money in Erie County Court. The payment arrangement that Maha Laxmi and Patel struck with the county, under the administration of then-County Executive Mark DiVecchio, put that suit on hold, as long as Maha Laxmi and Patel continued making payments.

The arrangement required $4,000 monthly payments from Maha Laxmi and Patel through June 1, 2014, as well as a balloon payment of about $80,000 after that date.

Foulk said in a March interview that it was not common practice for his office to get involved in pending civil court cases.

"The new county executive has come to the new DA to take another look at it," Daneri said.

County Finance Director Jim Sparber and Shapira said the Travelodge is one of three local hotels and motels that are late on their hotel tax payments.

All three businesses face 18 percent interest on their late monthly tax installments, Sparber said.

The other two are the Quality Inn & Suites, 6467 Sterrettania Road, and the Avalon Hotel, 16 W. 10th St. Both owe the county about $40,000 in unpaid hotel taxes and interest.

Sparber said the Avalon made a $9,776 payment to the county last week, and the county "is having discussions with them about a payment arrangement."

The county had a payment arrangement with the Quality Inn, Sparber said, "but they are in violation of that."

The county is considering pursuing civil or criminal action against the motel to recover the overdue tax and interest, Sparber said.

More than $17 million in county hotel taxes, and related interest, have been collected by county government since the hotel tax took effect nine years ago, county officials said.

The tax proceeds support the Erie County Convention Center Authority, which operates the Bayfront Convention Center, Tullio Arena, Jerry Uht Park and the Warner Theatre; and VisitErie, the county's tourism promotion agency.

Sparber said he suspects the shaky economy and other factors affect how regularly some of the businesses can remit the tax.

"But you have more than 50 other motels in Erie paying their share of the tax on time," Sparber said.

"We can't accept those who don't."

KEVIN FLOWERS can be reached at 870-1693 or by e-mail.

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To see more of the Erie Times-News, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.GoErie.com.

Copyright (c) 2010, Erie Times-News, Pa.

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