The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta dismissed on Tuesday a Clayton County lawsuit against the Federal Aviation Administration over fuel tax collections Hartsfield Jackson International Airport. JOHN SPINK / JSPINK@AJC.COM

Appeals court dismisses Clayton lawsuit in airport fuel tax battle

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals has dismissed a lawsuit by Clayton County to uphold airport fuel tax collections that the Federal Aviation Administration says the south metro community is not entitled to.

Clayton County and its school district split $18 million annually from fuel taxes levied on the Atlanta-owned Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, which is located in Clayton. But the FAA last year indicated it could begin enforcing a policy it upheld in a 2014 decision prohibiting the use of taxes collected at an airport for any purpose other than for the airport.

VIDEO: Previous coverage of this issue

02/13/2018 -- Atlanta, GA - Students and staff from Clayton County Public Schools gather at the entrance of the Delta Air Lines headquarters to protest Georgia House Bill 821, Tuesday, February 13, 2018. The proposed bill would, among other things, prevent Clayton County from collecting taxes on aviation fuel purchased at and/or sold by Hartsfield Jackson International Airport. ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM

The court on Tuesday ruled that it did not have jurisdiction in the case because the FAA had not yet enacted the policy, making it difficult to judge something that hadn’t happened.

“In the end, Petitioners’ lawsuit is both too late and too early,” the court wrote in its opinion. “It comes too late to challenge the FAA’s policy clarification issued in 2014, and it comes too early to challenge an FAA enforcement action that may never happen. Because the Letter is not final agency action, we dismiss the petition for lack of jurisdiction.”

Because the court did not take a side, the decision leaves the door open to Clayton and the FAA to continue further discussions on the matter, Clayton officials said.

“I’m disappointed, but optimistic because our fight continues,” said Ricky L. Clark, city manager for the city of Jonesboro.

In arguments before the 11th Circuit in early March, Clayton called the FAA’s move “arbitrary and capricious” and said the federal agency had not taken into account that while Hartsfield is located in Clayton, the county has no access to it as a revenue source outside of the fuel tax.

The loss of the tax, which Clayton has collected for two decades, would fail to compensate the county for Hartsfield-related burdens, such as air quality, noise and public safety costs.

Clayton’s fight with the FAA is different from the battle that heated up earlier this year between Delta Air Lines and state legislature over a sales tax exemption on jet fuel.

Clayton County Commission Chairman Jeff Turner said county leaders will huddle together to determine next steps. While he hopes the county will win in the long run, he was disappointed that court did not pick a side. That’s in part because had the county lost in court, Gov. Nathan Deal has set aside $27 million to compensate Clayton while it finds another funding source over three years.

“I wish they would have made a decision, but they didn’t.” Turner said. “I hope it won’t be a long, drawn-out process because we really need to move on so we can get to some other things.”

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