Clayton has failed in past attempts to get more taxes out of Hartsfield-Jackson Interntional Airport, including a Georgia Supreme Court ruling probiting the county from collecting ad valorem taxes from concessions. FILE PHOTO/AJC

Clayton Schools eyeing Hartsfield-Jackson as tax revenue source

With millions in revenue from the Delta Air Lines Foundation about to run out, Clayton County Schools is looking at levying property taxes at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

The effort would be an attempt to avoid a $60 million budget shortfall over the next five years.

The district has asked Clayton’s tax assessor’s office to investigate whether airlines at the world’s busiest airport should be paying ad valorem taxes to the county. Hartsfield is owned and operated by the city of Atlanta but is mostly located in Clayton County.

With leases for more than a dozen airlines at the airport — including giants such as Delta, United, American and British Airways — the school system thinks the tax collections could be lucrative.

“We believe those leases establish estates over years and that they should not be exempt [from property taxes],” Beasley said.

Clayton Schools is pursuing the tax after it lost access to millions it had received annually for years from jet fuel tax collections at Hartsfield. Former Gov. Nathan Deal ended the collections last year — an estimated $18 million in 2018 for Clayton, which the school system split with the county. Deal made the move after receiving pressure from the Federal Aviation Administration to enforce rules mandating airport revenue be used at the facility from which it was generated.

The money was to be paired with projects approved in a 2018 SPLOST referendum to build a new high school for Morrow, a middle school in Forest Park, laptops for all students and an early learning center, Beasley said.

To help the district transition from the revenue loss, Delta gave the school system close to $800,000 to $1 million monthly since July 2018, Beasley said. That funding ends Dec. 31.

A Delta spokeswoman said the airline declined to comment.

The county does receive some revenue from the airport, said William Gatson, a spokesman for the Georgia Department of Revenue. The agency’s central assessment program appraises airline flight equipment and sends the results to local governments for billing on their annual property tax digest.

But David Sjoquist, a state and local tax expert in the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University, said squeezing taxes out of the airport may be an uphill battle. There are jurisdictional issues with Atlanta, the state and the Federal Aviation Adminstration, which in recent years has demonstrated it is not too keen on local governments seeking to turn airports into cash cows.

To bridge that cap might require passage of an amendment to the state constitution, he said.

“I think it’s probably a non-starter for the county,” he said. “The feds have a big investment in the airport, as do the bondholders, who want money generated at the airport to pay for airport bonds.”

Past efforts by the county to extract revenue from the airport have failed. In April 2018, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed a county lawsuit to uphold the airport fuel tax collections after the FAA said it planned to enforce its ruling.

Months later in June 2018, the Georgia Supreme Court unanimously ruled Clayton could not receive property taxes from concessions at Hartsfield because they are not the custodians of “real property,” but are essentially lessees to the city of Atlanta.

Beasley said he is not wedded to taxing airlines as property and is keeping his options open if the tax assessor’s office finds the ad valorem tax route unworkable. That includes asking Delta to continue its support.

“Sixty million is a big chunk of money,” Beasley said. “That’s a whole lot of pennies, which impacts projects, etc. We are committed to exploring as many options as possible to fill the gaps.”

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