The concern about the sports teams is that the 25-year leases they signed two years ago come with the $500 million in Kauffman and Arrowhead stadium improvements still under way, and they call for the county and city each to kick in $2 million annually for upkeep and ongoing improvements.

Jackson County’s tiff with Kansas City over a popular business incentive could be resolved quickly, but county officials acknowledge concerns that this issue is spilling over to another city-county dispute – one involving hundreds of millions of dollars and potentially the future of the Royals and Chiefs.

“My hope is the city does not want to engage in a game of tit-for-tat,” County Executive Mike Sanders told county legislators Monday.

The concern about the sports teams is that the 25-year leases they signed two years ago come with the $500 million in Kauffman and Arrowhead stadium improvements still under way, and they call for the county and city each to kick in $2 million annually for upkeep and ongoing improvements.

It was revealed Monday that at the very end of 2009, that was a close call. The city still owed $300,000 of its $2 million, which the county paid after a promise that the city would come up with the money. The Royals, in the meantime, had prepared a letter saying the county was in default on the leases.

“And we were just minutes away from receiving that letter,” Sanders said. Officials stressed that the Chiefs hadn’t made any such suggestion.

“I think this is absolutely playing with fire. ... For some reason, they want to play Russian roulette with the community’s money,” Sanders said.

Defaulting on the leases would send millions in renovation cost overruns to the county rather than the teams, and it would open the door – potentially – for either team to leave even though taxpayers have just put $500 million to the stadium renovations.

On the city’s promise of the last $300,000, the county went ahead and paid the money, but the dispute over business incentives broke into the open last week – the county sued on Friday – and there’s been a suggestion on the Kansas City Council that the city might not pay the $300,000 after all.

Sanders repeated his hope that cooler heads will prevail and said $2 million in annual payments won’t be allowed to endanger hundreds of millions of dollars in public investment in the stadiums.

“This is an incredibly serious issue,” he said.

On the business incentive issue, both sides agreed Monday to an expedited schedule that means the county’s lawsuit goes to court Feb. 26.

“This is a matter we want decided as quickly as possible,” Sanders said.

The issue is whether Kansas City allows other tax jurisdictions – the county, school districts, library districts – to have any meaningful say in whether the city approves tax-increment financing for development projects. It’s a way of lowering developers’ costs by targeting newly generated taxes directly back into a project to pay for work such as roads, sewers and site preparation.

Many cities use TIF, and the county and other jurisdictions usually go along because they lose no money directly but are instead foregoing new tax money for a few years until the development cost are recouped. When that happens, the thinking is, every city, county, school district and library district gains from a broader tax base.

Under state law, all of those bodies have seats on each city’s TIF commission, but Jackson County says Kansas City’s commission makes crucial decisions with city-appointed members only and denies others the right to vote, ask for audits or even ask detailed questions. The county has about 40 TIF projects at the moment.

“These dollars have real impact – $27 million have been voted away from the county general coffers,” Sanders said. Roughly half of county spending is in Eastern Jackson County, he says.