Charleston County Council pressed ahead Tuesday with a new 5 percent tax on rental cars that's meant to raise incentive money to lure a low-cost airline to Charleston, as supporters wearing "Let's Fly" stickers looked on approvingly.
The next step will be a public hearing May 20, leading to a final council vote on the tax, which would apply to all passenger vehicle rentals of 90 days or less in Charleston County.
Officials have said there's a deal to bring a major discount airline here if the incentives are approved, but none would confirm hints and widespread speculation that Southwest is the airline being courted.
After the council's 8-1 vote in favor of the new levy -- Dickie Schweers cast the "no" vote -- local car rental companies protested that most of their customers are local residents who would face higher costs.
They also said it's unfair to tax one group of businesses in order to help another.
"Don't get me wrong, Southwest coming here is a great thing, but they should want to come here because this is Charleston," said Andrew Helin of Triangle Rent A Car in West Ashley, who said 97 percent of his customers are locals.
Sean Lawless of the U-Save rental franchise in North Charleston, and Kristen Olson of Enterprise Holdings, each said more than 90 percent of their customers at non-airport locations are locals, who are typically renting because their car is in the shop.
Council Chairman Teddie Pryor told them he's not seen or heard any public opposition to the new tax.
"Don't you think the public is smart enough that if they were against this they would be here?" he asked Olson.
Councilman Paul Thurmond, a candidate in a crowded Republican primary race for the 1st Congressional District this year, said he expects to take political heat for voting to approve a new tax, but said the airline incentive is important for the area.
"When you weigh this out, I think it will significantly help the community," he said.
Councilman Vic Rawl, a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, said when residents want services, it's the government's responsibility to raise the money to pay for them.
Schweers said he'd be willing to consider other ways to raise incentive money, but said the rental car tax goes too far.
Councilman Henry Darby said if the county can help corporations with stimulus packages then the county can find money to help the rural poor.
"They are suffering, and this council is not doing enough," Darby said.
In other business Tuesday, the council voted 6-3 to allow North Charleston to start taking all of its 86 tons per day of garbage to transfer stations in the city for eventual transport to Oakridge Landfill in Dorchester County, rather than continuing to take half to Bees Ferry Landfill in West Ashley.
The change will cost the county about $500,000 in disposal costs annually while saving North Charleston a similar amount on fuel, equipment and personnel costs.
Council members Joe McKeown, Colleen Condon, and Schweers voted in opposition.