A new 5 percent fee on car rentals in Charleston County, aimed at raising funds to lure a discount airline here, has been recommended for approval by a County Council committee, but rental companies are gearing up for a fight.
In recommending the fee, council's Economic Development Committee rejected a suggestion from Councilman Joe McKeown that the 5 percent fee should be dropped, or "sunset," after the purpose it's being created for has been achieved.
McKeown said that without a sunset clause, the new fee likely would become permanent, but Councilman Elliott Summey said the council could always vote to eliminate it and that the money might be needed for other airline incentives.
The fee is expected to raise $1.5 million yearly that could be used along with Aviation Authority incentives and possible state incentives to lure a discount carrier, such as Southwest Airlines, to Charleston, which local officials say would reduce airfares and boost tourism.
"It's not just to bring more tourists in, it's about people in Charleston not having to drive to Myrtle Beach or Savannah for lower airfare," said Summey, the committee chairman.
County Administrator Allen O'Neal said his wife just flew to the West Coast from Raleigh because airfare was about $250 versus $800 flying from Charleston. Other council members had similar stories.
But for car rental companies, the proposed fee represents a new tax heaped upon existing car rental taxes that exceed 20 percent at the airport and 12 percent elsewhere. And, they point out, it's not just tourists who rent cars.
"For companies off the airport property, I'd say 90 percent of our business is local people," said Matthew Keefe of Triangle Rent A Car in West Ashley. "An extra 5 percent may seem like a great idea to the powers that be, but it will hit local people in the pocket."
He said that if a local family were to rent a minivan with unlimited mileage for a vacation, the proposed fee could add $17 to a four-day rental.
Keefe suggested a fee that only applied to car rental businesses at the airport would be better for local residents, but national car rental companies also oppose the fee, at the airport or elsewhere.
"We are extremely alarmed by the proposed Charleston County car rental tax," said Enterprise Holdings Public Relations Director Laura Bryant. "In addition, we are confused, since no one from Charleston County has even discussed this matter with us -- one of the largest car rental companies in Charleston County with an airport location as well as an extensive network of neighborhood branch offices serving thousands of local citizens throughout the region."
Enterprise Holdings includes Alamo Rent A Car, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, and National Car Rental.
"We certainly understand the importance of economic development and the county's desire to attract a low-cost airline," Bryant said. "However, we are concerned that the county's well-intentioned efforts to increase the number of flights to and from our area inadvertently requires car rental customers to subsidize the airline industry."
The full County Council is scheduled to vote on the fee at a 7 p.m. meeting Tuesday, in the Public Services Building, 4045 Bridge View Drive, North Charleston. The unanimous committee vote recommending the fee included council members Summey, McKeown, Teddie Pryor and Paul Thurmond. Vic Rawl was absent.
"I generally have been opposed to fee increases, but I will tell you that this seems to be a wonderful investment," Thurmond said.