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County loses on bill to save Delta

By Justin Boron

Eldrin Bell, chairman of the Clayton County commission, said a legislative proposal limiting the amount of state fuel taxes paid by the airlines could be devastating for the county government, which depends on the taxes for as much as 10 percent of its annual revenue.

A bill introduced by Rep. Mark Burkhalter, R-Alpharetta, would cap the state fuel taxes at $15 million and help a struggling Delta Air Lines.

Burkhalter admitted to The Associated Press that the county would lose money under his bill but called it a worthy trade-off if it helps return Delta to profitability.

"If Delta goes under, it's a bigger loss to them," he said.

Benet Wilson, a representative for Delta, said the company is supporting the bill, citing rising fuel costs as a large reason for its financial troubles. The company came close to bankruptcy last fall.

While local officials recognize support for Delta would help solidify the Southside economy, they said it would also have dire consequences for the county government.

Because Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is in Clayton County, the government benefits from the sales taxes on fuel sold at the airport, said Clark Stevens, the county chief of staff.

The bill would waive those sales taxes starting in 2006 and force the county into the difficult position of dramatically raising taxes or cutting current costs in order to compensate for the lost income, Stevens said.

Stevens said it would likely come out of the taxpayers pockets in the form of a two mill increase of taxes because it would be nearly impossible to trim such a large amount of funding from the county department's budgets.

"There's no way to bail out $11 million," he said.

The bill also would significantly set back the dozens of roadway improvements and recreational enhancements that are part of the county's Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax program, Stevens said.

Local legislators promised to oppose the bill.

Rep. Ron Dodson I-Lake City said he would ask for language to be deleted that would waive the sales tax while the bill was in committee.

"You're singling out one county out of 159 counties," he said.

Dodson also said the $11 to 14 million loss would cost each citizen in the county about $56.

Sen. Valencia Seay D-College Park, the president of the Clayton County delegation, said the proposal was "unconscionable."

"While I recognize Delta needs help . . ., the help doesn't need to come on the backs of Clayton County taxpayers," she said.