Tonawanda News

October 18, 2012

Town shanked golf course concession deal

The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Town of Tonawanda leaders got caught with their pants down this week when the vendor they ousted after a heated political campaign uncovered a rather embarrassing — and potentially costly — blunder.

Michael Vishion, a town businessman, operated concession stands at the Brighton and Sheridan golf courses until 2010 when the town abruptly canceled Vishion’s contract with a year remaining on the five-year deal.

You see, Vishion had the temerity to challenge Town Councilman Dan Crangle in that year’s election. Vishion lost and Crangle, who chairs the town’s recreation committee and has run roughshod over the department for years, approved the cancellation.

The evidence of political interference in otherwise uncontroversial town business seems obvious given the timing. Town leaders say they were contemplating the move to take over concessions at the golf courses since 2008, years before Vishion ran against Crangle. They hold up emails at the time discussing the concession takeover as proof the decision wasn’t politically motivated. 

It still begs a question: Why if it was so lucrative in 2008, did the take-over only happen after Vishion’s board run in 2010?

But nonetheless Recreation Director Dan Wiles at the time said the town could make “exponentially more” money than Vishion’s private firm. 

We were skeptical of that claim but at least part of it seems clear now why they made it: Stiffing New York state on property taxes can certainly help pad the bottom line. 

When Vishion, who has remained a board critic since the issue blew up in late 2010, went asking about how his old business was faring under town stewardship things began to unravel. A records request came up with no sales tax receipts.

It was only after Vishion’s records request that red flags were raised at town hall. Not surprisingly, the town began collecting the tax in January.

Hither to Vishion’s questioning, town leaders were under the mistaken impression they were a sales tax-exempt entity. That no one in town government — not Wiles, town legal counsel, the board or Supervisor Anthony Caruana — figured out the mistake across the town’s various for-profit enterprises demonstrates some rather stunning ineptitude. 

Now town taxpayers are on the hook for the back bill not just at the golf courses, but concessions at the town’s two sports arenas and on sales made at the Aquatic and Fitness Center for years, maybe decades.

The town has retained outside legal counsel to cut a deal with the state Department of Taxation and Finance. And it was only at Monday’s board meeting where approval of the legal fees raised eyebrows did any of this sorry mess come to light. 

How much taxpayers in the town will have to pay to make up for this hack job remains unclear. But one thing is for certain: The town is going to have to sell a whole lot more hot dogs and beer at 19th hole on Brighton and Sheridan to make up for shanking this one into the woods.