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Charlotte considered new tax on airport parking revenue

In November, Charlotte city officials discussed the idea of a new, $3.9 million tax on the airport’s 26,000 parking spaces as part of a plan to raise revenue for a proposed streetcar and other capitol improvement projects.

That discussion now appears to be playing a role in the fight over a new, independent authority taking ownership and control over Charlotte Douglas International Airport.

On Thursday, during the airport’s advisory committee meeting, member Todd Fuller asked aviation director Jerry Orr about rumors that the move to create an authority was spurred by city officials trying to divert airport revenue to pay for local projects such as the streetcar.

Orr said federal law prevents the city from taking airport revenues to pay for other city projects, but some airport revenues, such as parking, might not be covered by that law. “The argument, of course, is where exactly is that line,” Orr said.

“Does that line cover the airport parking?” Fuller asked Orr.

“That’s a difficult question,” Orr said.

In fiscal 2012, the airport collected more than $38.5 million worth of parking revenue.

After the meeting, the city quickly released a legal opinion Thursday afternoon saying that it could not, in fact, legally divert any revenue from the airport to pay for city projects.

Charlotte City Attorney Bob Hagemann said the city budget office had asked him last fall whether it could levy a tax on parking spaces throughout the city. The city attorney’s office said that it could not, though it could levy a form of the Business Privilege License tax on the owners of private lots.

In a budget presentation to the City Council on Nov. 26, that option was included as a way to raise money for the streetcar. The city estimated it could raise about $3.9 million with a new airport parking tax.

Hagemann said Thursday the airport was incorrectly listed as part of the presentation. If there were private parking lots at the airport, they could be subject to the tax. But because all of the parking lots are owned by the city, they would not be.

“The city can’t tax itself,” Hagemann said.

He added that it is against federal law to divert airport money – including parking revenue – outside of the airport.

The City Council apparently didn’t seriously consider the proposal at the November meeting, and the idea hasn’t been raised since, officials said.

The airport is owned by the city and operated as a self-funding city department.

The airport authority fight has set Charlotte officials at odds with state legislators in Raleigh. Last month, a bill was introduced that would transfer control and ownership of the airport from Charlotte to a new, 13-member authority.

City Council members have been fighting to slow down the legislation and have started a plan to study the idea. State Sen. Bob Rucho, a Republican from Matthews and one of the bill’s sponsors, has delayed a Senate vote on the bill that was scheduled for Wednesday.

Advocates of an independent authority have pointed to the city’s decision to transfer control of the airport police to Charlotte-Mecklenburg police last year – as well as tighter financial controls after bond money was improperly accounted for – as evidence that Charlotte officials are meddling in the airport’s affairs.

City officials, however, have pointed to the same incidents as evidence that the airport needs city oversight.

If the bill passes the state House and Senate, it will become law without Gov. Pat McCrory’s signature because it affects fewer than 15 counties and is considered local legislation.

Authority study

The airport advisory committee also decided Thursday to hold a special meeting in the next few weeks to investigate whether changing the airport’s management to an independent authority is a good idea.

Some advisory committee members said they haven’t received enough information about the switch to recommend for or against the idea. The committee is supposed to advise the Charlotte City Council on aviation matters.

“Right now, we’ve been given very little information,” said committee member Scott Culpepper.

The advisory committee will schedule its meeting later this month, committee chairman Shawn Dorsch said. Members will question airport staff about the change to an independent authority, including aviation director Orr.

Orr has been quiet on the issue since being directed by city staff not to advocate for an authority. However, in previous interviews, he has said that governing the airport with an independent authority would be a good idea because it would help the airport act more like a business.

When asked after the meeting Thursday whether he would be able to speak freely to the advisory committee about whether he supports the authority, Orr demurred.

“That depends on the direction I get,” Orr said. “I certainly can answer their questions. ... I hope the outcome of any meeting is the truth.” Staff writer Steve Harrison contributed.

Portillo: 704-358-5041 On Twitter @ESPortillo
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