The Clayton County school system is trying to find a new way to draw revenue from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. The district wants to replace the money it used to receive from a jet fuel tax. For years, Clayton County and the Clayton County Public Schools would split $18 million a year in fuel tax revenue.
However, in 2017, the Federal Aviation Administration said it would enforce a rule that requires sales tax revenue generated at an airport to be spent on operations at that same airport. If Clayton County kept collecting the tax, Georgia could’ve lost federal funds, the FAA said.
In 2018, the state House of Representatives introduced a bill that would’ve killed the tax. Rep. Chuck Efstration, R-Dacula, the bill’s lead sponsor, said the tax hurt the airport economically.
“By removing the sales tax on jet fuel, we can level the playing field for our airports and airlines to compete,” Efstration said in a phone interview.
Other lawmakers said Clayton County had been collecting the tax illegally and should be grateful for the money it received up until 2018.
“The old saying is, ‘…better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all,’ and Clayton County got to have this money for a long time…and they should be just happy they had it for when they did,” said Rep. Trey Kelley, R-Cedartown.
The legislation stalled, but the Georgia Department of Revenue stopped collecting the tax in July 2018. The state provided some grants to counties, including Clayton, that were affected by the loss of revenue. The Delta Air Lines Foundation stepped in to cover the school district’s share of the revenue through 2019, which is quickly coming to an end.
“We don’t have any other options to make up the loss beyond hopefully having a conversation with Delta to see if they would be willing to continue with the current arrangement,” said Clayton County Public Schools Superintendent Morcease Beasley.
Beasley sent a letter to Delta this week requesting a meeting about continuing its financial support.
The school district budgeted the jet fuel tax money for projects paid for by a Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax (SPLOST V). That’s a voter-approved 1-cent sales tax that typically goes toward building repairs or upgrades.
“At the time we began the conversations with Delta, and they agreed to this infusion into the SPLOST program, they did not want to go beyond this current referendum,” Beasley said.
That referendum, SPLOST V, ends Dec. 31. In 2018, Beasley said, Delta only wanted to commit to funding projects voters had already said “yes” to. However, in March 2019, voters approved SPLOST VI, a new round of funding, which starts in January. Beasley is hopeful the Delta Air Lines Foundation will agree to fund the new referendum.
A Delta spokesperson said the airline doesn’t have a comment at this time.
Beasley isn’t pinning all of his hopes on Delta. He’s also asked Clayton County’s Board of Tax Assessors to see whether the airport could be taxed as an estate. If so, he believes the school district could collect property taxes. However, he expects that decision to take a while.
“This work that we’re asking the board of tax assessors to do will require them to find some specialists in this area to help them think through the intricate details of what this really means,” Beasley said.
If funding doesn’t come through, the school district says projects like new school buildings, buses and technology could be put on hold.