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Jed York, 49ers president, addresses the crowd as various dignitaries break ground on the new 49ers stadium in Santa Clara, Calif. Thursday, April 19, 2012. Six years in the making, the San Francisco Forty-niners and the City of Santa Clara finally realize the joint dream of construction beginning on the Forty-niner's new game-day home in their new stadium, to be built adjacent to the parking lot at Great America and across the street from the Niner's corporate headquarters and training facility. (Patrick Tehan/Staff)

Out of nowhere, Santa Clara County officials have yanked $30 million in tax funds promised for the San Francisco 49ers' new Santa Clara stadium, saying they would rather spend the money on teachers than install "little televisions in the back of stadium seats."

The 49ers and Santa Clara city leaders strongly and passionately object to the move, saying voters had specifically earmarked redevelopment funds to the stadium and that the county has no right to keep it. Lengthy court battles are likely, launching a rare soap opera in a stadium debate that has been mostly peaceful -- and supposedly long over.

"Ladies and gentleman, retain your attorneys: The litigation is (about) to begin," County Assessor Larry Stone said.

Asked whether the decision could affect stadium construction, which began in April, a 49ers spokesman declined to comment. The team's front office has said it would simply eat the loss if it loses the funds, which amount to less than 3 percent of the cost of the $1.2 billion stadium that is set to open in 2014.

The 49ers and Santa Clara officials will be busy this week reviewing how to respond.

The funding grab came Friday by a new board that oversees property tax from redevelopment zones. It was so unexpected that Santa Clara leaders argued it was done in violation of public notice laws.

The issue comes down to a measure Santa Clara voters approved in 2010, when they endorsed $40 million in redevelopment funds to help build the stadium. But the state has since scrapped redevelopment agencies, and Santa Clara's redevelopment fund had only paid $10 million toward the stadium. So the 49ers loaned Santa Clara leaders the remaining $30 million and started construction, thinking they'd be paid back from future property tax revenues.

There's just one glitch, however: The new state law gives counties complete control over doling out the property tax revenues from former redevelopment areas. At a meeting in Santa Clara City Hall on Friday, the oversight board voted 4-3 to keep the money from the 49ers and spend it instead on local governments and schools.

"Let's be real: That stadium is going to get built whether or not you get this $30 million," county tax collector George Putris, the oversight board member who proposed the motion, told a 49ers attorney at the meeting.

Putris mentioned that he was under the impression the 49ers wanted to spend $50 million to install televisions on the back of seats like those on airliners, though it's unclear if that's true. He said the need was greater at other public agencies, such as school districts.

"We're talking about schoolteachers, whether they get laid off, whether there are 35 kids in a classroom, whether there are seismic retrofits," Putris said.

Santa Clara leaders called the move "extremely troubling."

"Just because you can find a legal argument doesn't make things right," said Santa Clara Mayor Jamie Matthews, a die-hard stadium backer. "Some things are right and wrong, and we have an obligation to the 49ers. It was voted on by the citizens."

Santa Clara was among many redevelopment agencies that scrambled to protect their precious redevelopment funds from the state after Gov. Jerry Brown proposed dedicating the money to help local governments and schools. Many projects statewide that banked on redevelopment cash are now expected to end up battling for the money in court.

The oversight board that seized Santa Clara's funds includes Matthews and the city's finance director along with representatives from agencies around the county.

Lizanne Reynolds, a deputy county counsel, advised the board that it had the power to keep the funds if members decided it was "not in the best interest" of other county agencies that could use the tax money. Then Putris pulled out a written motion he had compiled before the meeting.

Attorneys for the city and the 49ers vehemently disagreed, and said they have already spent the money on construction.

"You absolutely do not have the legal authority to walk away from these legally binding obligations," said Harry O'Brien, an attorney for the 49ers.

City Attorney Ren Nosky protested the motion, saying the action was not put on the agenda, an alleged violation of the state's open meeting law known as the Brown Act. Nosky said had the issue been mentioned ahead of time, scores of stadium supporters would have showed up in protest. Matthews also objected amid a heated back-and-forth rarely seen in normally benign Santa Clara politics.

Another attorney for Santa Clara, Karen Tiedemann, said she expects some municipal agency, likely Santa Clara's redevelopment successor agency, would be sued by the 49ers in an attempt to recoup the funds promised to the team. She said if the 49ers were successful in court, they'd likely get the $30 million from the pot of redevelopment funds the county is withholding.

Stone summed it up this way: "It reminds me of a messy divorce."

Contact Mike Rosenberg at 408-920-5705. Follow him at twitter.com/rosenberg17.