Clayton County tried Friday to persuade the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold an airport fuel tax collection that the Federal Aviation Administration has said the south metro community should not have access to.
The county, which is home to most of Atlanta-owned Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, gets about $18 million annually — $9 million for the county and $9 million for the Clayton Schools district — from a sales tax on fuel at the world’s busiest airfield.
But that could be coming to an end because the FAA has indicated it could soon enforce a 2014 ruling it made that prohibits the use of taxes collected on an airport from being used for any purpose other than the airport.
Clayton argued at the Friday hearing that the FAA’s move was “arbitrary and capricious” and did not take into account that Hartsfield is located in Clayton, but has no access to it as a revenue source outside of the fuel tax.
Stripping the tax, which the county has collected for two decades, would fail to compensate Clayton for the burden it takes on related to Hartsfield, such as air quality, noise and public safety costs as the jurisdiction responsible for policing the airport.
“We are entitled to a determination to the applicability of the policy,” said Jack Hancock, an attorney with Freeman, Mathis and Gary, which is representing the county.
Clayton’s fight with the FAA is different from Delta Air Lines’ battle with the state legislature over a sales tax exemption on jet fuel.
The rule blocking access to the funds went into effect in December, but the FAA has granted extensions on a case-by-case basis.
“It seems to me you don’t have a final order here,” Judge William Pryor said at the hearing, seeming to indicate that he had nothing to rule on.
Joy Day, the mayor of Jonesboro, said the FAA has left the county and cities who have counted on the money in limbo. Until a decision is made by the courts or an agreement is reached with the FAA about the collections, budgeting is going to be more difficult and cities may have to hold off on plans that they hoped could be covered by the money.
“The impact is tremendous,” said Day, who attended the hearing.
Clayton County Commission Chairman Jeff Turner said if the county loses in the courts and the FAA goes forward with its plans to axe the money, he is negotiating with Gov. Nathan Deal for a $27 million set aside to give Clayton three years — the county would get $ 9 million each year — to come up with an alternate funding solution.
“The decision will not be made immediately,” Turner said. “A lot will weigh on what the court of appeals does.”
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