Hamilton County might ignore $2.67M stadium payment to Bengals

CINCINNATI -- County leaders might skip a $2.67 million payment to the Cincinnati Bengals. 

Hamilton County taxpayers are expected to pick up some of the tab for this season's football game-day expenses at Paul Brown Stadium. The bill is due early next year. 

The team’s 26-year stadium lease calls for county taxpayers to pay for game clean up and security at the stadium during the final nine years of the deal. The Bengals are supposed to start collecting that payment in early next year, to cover the current season.

But Hamilton County Commission President Todd Portune told WCPO he has no plans of writing that check to the NFL team.

When asked if the Bengals are aware the county intends to ignore the request for payments, Portune said: “I think they know it’s coming.”

The Hamilton County administrator also did not include the payments in his proposed budget for 2018.

The game-day expense is just the latest stadium cost the team is able to unload onto county taxpayers, thanks to a generous and controversial stadium deal county commissioners agreed to 20 years ago. 

Building the stadium cost taxpayers nearly $455 million. Since then, other expenses -- a new scoreboard, paying down the interest on the project, and stadium maintenance -- have continued to cost taxpayers millions. 

For years, Paul Brown Stadium has been a source of debate – with some criticizing the county for giving the team too much control over the stadium taxpayers finance and own. Others, however, argue the pro-football team would have left town long ago without a taxpayer-backed stadium. 

The contract calls for the county to start paying up to $2.67 million for this season, and tack on an extra 5 percent for game-day expenses every year. By 2026, the county would pay $3.9 million as an annual payment to the team for game-day costs.

Last year, county leaders told WCPO they were hopeful a renegotiation of the clause might be worked out before the Bengals came to collect a $2.67 million payment in January.  

But a new deal has not been reached.

“We have no new information to share at this time,” Bengals spokeswoman Emily Parker said in an email response to WCPO’s request for comment.

Portune wants to schedule a meeting with the team to discuss the future of the team, the Bengals lease at Paul Brown Stadium, and the $2.67 million bill. 

“(The Bengals) said, ‘We want them,’” Portune said of the payments. “We’ve said, ‘We have this old opinion from the prosecutor that says it’s illegal.’” 

Portune said he cannot release that legal opinion, citing attorney-client privilege, which protects correspondence between the county and its attorneys from being made public. 

The county is currently developing its budget for next year. Extra money to pay for game-day expenses will be hard to come by as the county faces a tight budget coupled with a possible $6 million loss in sales tax money next year. 

Last week, for example, the Hamilton County Commissioners voted to withhold a portion of the property tax rebate homeowners were promised in exchange for raising the county sales tax 20 years ago to fund the two riverfront sports complexes – Paul Brown Stadium and Great American Ball Park.

The Bengals’ lease with the county expires in 2026.

Portune has fought the Bengals lease before.

In 2003, Portune sued the team and the NFL over the deal, calling for the lease to be renegotiated. The suit was later dismissed. 

This time, the two parties aren’t in court – yet – but Portune told WCPO he is pushing for a renegotiation of the lease again. 

“Let’s not wait,” Portune said. “I want to engage them as early as 2018 … I want to take a look at the whole relationship, with an eye toward developing a longer term agreement that does not end in 2026.” 

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