Bengals' lease requires taxpayers to cover game-day expenses in 2017 season

Posted at 7:01 AM, Dec 08, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-08 10:57:26-05

Taxpayers could be on the hook to pay some game-day operating expenses when the Cincinnati Bengals play at Paul Brown Stadium next season.

Hamilton County’s 26-year lease with the NFL football team stipulates the county becomes responsible for up to $2.67 million worth of game-day expenses, like picking up emptied beer cups and popcorn bags after games, starting in 2017. 

County leaders have started talking with the team to see if a new deal – one that might save taxpayers from paying millions of dollars in game-day expenses over the lease’s final nine years -- can be worked out. Discussions began earlier this year and are expected to pick up again after this football season ends in January, said Joe Feldkamp, who manages stadium operations for the county.

“Both Hamilton County and the Bengals are working toward a better solution for that,” Feldkamp said of the agreement to pay for game-day costs, most of which he believes would go toward cleaning the stadium after games and security. “We haven’t come to any conclusions.”

The Bengals confirmed to WCPO that they are continuing an “open dialogue” with the county over the stadium’s future.

Since it was built, the team has picked up the entire tab for game-day costs at Paul Brown Stadium. But the contract stipulates that will change in the final nine years of the agreement.

The lease calls for the county to start reimbursing the Bengals “for any and all expenses of any nature whatsoever” for game days next year. That same lease sets a limit -- $2.67 million in the 2017 season – for the county’s share of game-day expenses. That bill won't be due until 2018, after next year's season is finished.

Additionally, the contract calls for the county to pay 5 percent more for game-day costs every year. So by the 2025 season the county is supposed to pay the Bengals up to $3.9 million for the expenses. 

Feldkamp said county leaders began discussing the lease terms with the team in May. They’re looking at what they can offer to the Bengals to avoid paying for game-day expenses, but Feldkamp declined to offer any specific items on the table for negotiations. Potential enhancements to the stadium could be considered, he said.

Hamilton County Commission President Chris Monzel said the Bengals and county leadership have been more cordial in recent years, striking deals that satisfied both parties. 

“For the past several years now, we’ve been trying to work more collaboratively with the Bengals,” Monzel said. “They realize we’re not flush with cash … We’re going to have to continue in that spirit of collaboration.”

Both Hamilton County leaders and the Bengals point to agreements the two have worked out in recent years as proof that the two can renegotiate terms of the longstanding contract.

In 2014, the team waived a contract clause that placed height restrictions on new building developments surrounding the stadium. In return, the county agreed to kick in money for some new upgrades in the stadium, including a new scoreboard and Wi-Fi. The Bengals also shared in those costs, even though they weren’t required to do so.

“The Bengals have invested millions of dollars in Paul Brown Stadium beyond what the lease required,” the team responded in an email to a WCPO request for comment. “The identified lease provision dates back to 1996 and won’t become relevant for over a year. While it would be premature to talk about those issues, the Bengals will maintain an open dialogue with Hamilton County.”

The stadium deal Hamilton County voters approved and county officials signed off on in 1997 that led to the construction of Paul Brown Stadium has been controversial. Much of the $455 million bill for the stadium’s development was footed through a county sales tax, leading some critics to question the stadium's return on investment. The team has frequently argued the stadium played a vital role in reshaping the city’s riverfront.

That contract calls for the Bengals and county leadership to meet at certain points to review the stadium’s condition. Last year, the Bengals requested one of those meetings with county leaders to “survey the status of Paul Brown Stadium and consider stadium elements around the NFL that could be considered here.”

That’s what led to the meetings earlier this year, with the issue of game-day operating costs coming up.

Feldkamp said the team has also discussed issues of parking around the stadium, and county leaders have updated the team on where the county stands financially during the talks. The Bengals, he added, haven’t come to the discussions with a “wish list” for stadium upgrades.

“They just want to keep the door open to say, ‘Let’s keep talking about this,’” Feldkamp said of county meetings with the Bengals.