Hillsborough property appraiser wins tax lawsuit against Aviation Authority

A judge ruled public land leased to private tenants can be taxed, a position long held by the appraiser.
Terminals for Southwest Airlines remain mostly empty as a Delta Airlines plane taxis past the airside terminal at Tampa International Airport on Aug. 14.
Terminals for Southwest Airlines remain mostly empty as a Delta Airlines plane taxis past the airside terminal at Tampa International Airport on Aug. 14. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Nov. 19, 2020

For the second time in four months, Hillsborough County Property Appraiser Bob Henriquez has won a tax lawsuit involving private businesses operating in public spaces.

A circuit court judge ruled Thursday that the property appraiser can levy taxes on space leased to private tenants by the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, the public entity that runs Tampa International Airport.

The ruling affects nearly 15 parcels at Tampa International Airport, Tampa Executive Airport, Peter O. Knight Airport and other facilities. Tenants on those properties include American Airlines, UPS and Advantage Rent A Car.

According to the order, the Aviation Authority had filed for and received tax exemptions on those properties; the property appraiser’s office argued those exemptions were improper. The ruling allows the properties to be taxed at different percentages, depending on how much of each parcel is used for private business.

“We feel as though this upholds our position that we’ve held for many, many years, and has been consistently upheld in the courts,” Henriquez said. “We have a couple of decades of precedent saying that our interpretation that folks that lease land from the Aviation Authority or Port Authority for profit are subject to ad valorem taxation.”

Michael Stephens, general counsel for the Aviation Authority, said the agency plans to appeal.

“The Property Appraiser’s actions will have a negative economic impact on Hillsborough County and set a harmful precedent in our state,” Stephens said in a statement. “We intend to appeal, as we strongly believe Florida law supports our position.”

Thursday’s ruling is similar to one from this summer, in which a judge ruled that the property appraiser can collect taxes from a private shipyard operating on publicly owned land at Port Tampa Bay. Henriquez and his predecessor, Rob Turner, have long held that tenants of public agencies like the port, Aviation Authority and Tampa Sports Authority should pay taxes.

Related: Property Appraiser wins tax lawsuit against Port Tampa Bay shipyard

That case is on appeal. Henriquez does not expect a final ruling on that until the middle of next year, but said that he’s “hopeful and optimistic” that the appellate court will uphold the lower court’s decision.

Henriquez said the Aviation Authority’s decision to appeal Thursday’s ruling is not surprising, but he believes it, too, will be upheld.

“At some point, they have to take a good hard look — particularly given what we’ve seen as a result of the unfortunate economic impact on the airport and Aviation Authority of COVID — do they really want to go down this road of what is showing to be fruitless lawsuits at the expense of taxpayers?” he said.

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Henriquez estimated that if and when the properties are added to the county’s tax rolls, it could add millions to the county coffers.

“A few million in the giant scheme of the tax roll is not necessarily a lot,” he said. “But at a time when budgets are so tight, it could make a difference.”