16:10 PM

Aviation Authority wins appellate court ruling in tax lawsuit with Hillsborough property appraiser

The Hillsborough County Aviation Authority won a major legal victory this past Friday in its four-year legal battle with the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser over a Florida ad valorem tax exemption.

The 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled in favor of the Aviation Authority, reversing an earlier trial court’s decision in favor of the Property Appraiser and sending the case back to the trial court to rule in the Authority’s favor. The Authority, which oversees Tampa International Airport and the county’s three general aviation airports, represented 15 tenant businesses that suddenly faced millions of dollars in unexpected property tax bills after a longstanding exemption backed by Florida Statutes. Those tenants include airlines, cargo and medical transport services, fueling and maintenance services and fixed-base operators that support the Tampa Bay region’s aviation industry and promote economic growth.

Michael Stephens headshot"The law has always been crystal-clear regarding businesses operating on property for airports that serve a government purpose. We are pleased the appellate court interpreted the law the way it was intended, particularly as we embark on our next phase of growth at TPA," said TPA Executive Vice President and General Counsel Michael Stephens.

The Aviation Authority and its tenants benefitted from the tax exemption for several years before the county’s Property Appraiser removed the exemption in 2019, just before the pandemic’s heavy impacts on business. The Aviation Authority argued that these exemptions were protected by state law and applied to all Florida counties, but a circuit court judge sided with the Property Appraiser in November 2020.

The Aviation Authority appealed the decision, and on Friday, a panel of judges ruled in favor of the Authority, pointing out that the Authority’s tenant businesses served aviation or airport purposes, thus used for a "governmental purpose," and were exempt from ad valorem taxation by relevant Florida Statutes.

Deric Dymerski, owner and president of fixed-based operator Atlas Aviation and longtime Aviation Authority tenant, said he was relieved but not surprised by the ruling.

"As a small business owner, along with others who have contributed to aviation growth in this region, I have always understood the Florida legislature’s plain-language intent to help Florida thrive as a leader in creating jobs and opportunities in this sector," Dymerski said. "It’s a shame we had to be involved in a costly and years-long legal battle to arrive at this conclusion, but I’m glad justice and sound reasoning prevailed."

The Property Appraiser has an opportunity to file a Notice of Rehearing with the 2nd District Court of Appeal or a Notice of Appeal with the Florida Supreme Court.

"We hope that the appellate court’s decision will finally resolve this dispute so we can continue to move our region and state’s aviation economy forward," Stephens said.