Green Bay Packers say effort to disband stadium district would violate Lambeau Field lease, result in 'major litigation'

Richard Ryman
Green Bay Press-Gazette
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GREEN BAY – The Green Bay Packers offered their strongest opposition yet to Rep. David Steffen's proposal to disband the Lambeau Field stadium district during his presentation to the Green Bay finance committee.

Steffen, a Republican who lives in Howard, proposes the elimination of the Green Bay/Brown County Professional Football Stadium District and its seven-member board, which co-owns Lambeau Field with the Green Bay Packers and the city.

His legislation would transfer assets and liabilities of the district to the city of Green Bay, except for $81 million set aside for operations and maintenance of the stadium through at least 2031. That he would distribute to Brown County property owners and other entities.

In the Packers' view, that and other provisions of the proposal would bust the lease between the Packers, the city and the board, entities the team said work well together.

"Rep. Steffen's legislation would position them instead as adversaries, as they would be forced to sort out who would be responsible to make up the operations and maintenance funding deficit. The proposed legislation is unwise public policy for that reason alone," said Aaron Popkey, Packers public affairs director.

"It would constitute a breach of trust and illegal evisceration of the Lambeau Field lease. It would leave no choice other than immediate major litigation to prevent it from taking effect."

The proposal does not involve the Titletown District, a business and entertainment district owned by the Packers west of Lambeau Field and in the village of Ashwaubenon.

Steffen on Tuesday explained his plan to the city's Finance Committee, with other council members attending the virtual meeting as well. The discussion was largely academic for now because Steffen said there is no chance the proposal could become law this year. He intends to reintroduce it in January 2023.

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The district was created for the 2003 renovation of Lambeau Field. Steffen argues it completed all its legislatively assigned duties in 2015 and should be dissolved. He also wants to distribute the $81 million from the maintenance fund largely created by a half-cent sales tax which ended in 2015. He would give $700 to Brown County homeowners and additional money to Brown County, Green Bay, Ashwaubenon, the Greater Green Bay Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Green Bay Community Foundation.

Steffen's plan calls for replacing the $81 million by redirecting the 10% Lambeau Field ticket tax to the city, which would be responsible for reimbursing the team for maintenance costs determined by formula.

The proposal would allow the city to use excess ticket tax on certain other projects. 

The Packers say those actions, as well as others in the proposal, would violate the three-party lease, which has language specifically prohibiting changes to the ticket tax and imposing penalties for attempting to do so.

Changing the ticket tax also could imperil money the Packers receive from the NFL for improvements to Lambeau Field, Popkey said. The team has made about $500 million in improvements to Lambeau Field since the 2003 renovation. The team has done that and added another $300 million in investment in the Titletown District without additional public financing. It has gotten loans from the NFL.

"The NFL would not approve money to go into the stadium if not for the (financial) structure that is in place. If that were to go away, that could jeopardize our ability to get additional funds," Popkey said. 

Steffen contends changes to the lease, such as the elimination of the stadium board and the maintenance fund, would not matter as long as the Packers were not impacted financially. He and the Packers disagree on what constitutes financial impact.

"What is disappointing is that one state assemblyman can potentially drive a wedge in a relationship that has been so successful. What he is proposing is bad for the city, the community, Lambeau Field and the Packers," Popkey said after the meeting. 

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Steffen acknowledged, as he has before, that the city might need to borrow money for about five years to meet its new obligations. 

Council member Barbara Dorff, the finance committee chairwoman, said she was not surprised by the Packers warning that the matter could end up in court.

"I didn't feel threatened by what Mr. Popkey said about litigation because litigation is what people do. I took it as 'yeah, that's probably what could happen," she said.

Steffen also stressed a theme he raised Monday that the stadium board has failed to adequately oversee the district's finances.

Annual audits of the board consistently note that it does not have optimal internal controls, primarily because of the size of its staff. The audits have not suggested any improprieties. Its remedy has been to advise the board to keep an eye on transactions.

Steffen cited "concerns regarding transparency and oversite by a non-accountable-to-the voter government entity."

District board members are appointed by the county executive (3), the mayor of Green Bay (3) and the president of Ashwaubenon (1).

Steffen told council member Bill Galvin, who is a stadium board member, that "you have not reviewed a single invoice, a single dated work order, you have not reviewed or had any open bidding of any contractors, and I believe with doing that for the number of millions of dollars that have run through your fingers, in my opinion, is inappropriate."

Galvin did not respond to Steffen.

The Green Bay council members asked questions but did not take positions on the proposal, unlike Ashwaubenon village board members, who heard the proposal in November and were against it. Dorff was the exception Tuesday.

"This is not a relationship I would be interested in risking," she said. 

Contact Richard Ryman at (920) 431-8342 or rryman@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter at @RichRymanPG, on Instagram at @rrymanPG or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/RichardRymanPG/.

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