Taxes, Representation Key in New Session; South Georgia Lawmakers Head to Atlanta with a Lot on Their Minds

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Byline: BRANDON LARRABEE

Taxes and the look of local government will be on the table this session when coastal lawmakers return to Atlanta today for the 2007 legislative session.

Revisiting the regulation of shrimping nets is also a possibility.

In Chatham County, Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Savannah, said he and Rep. Burke Day, R-Tybee Island, are looking to make property-tax exemptions consistent.

Currently, the exemption for county government and several cities in Chatham freezes the value of residential property when it comes to taxing, preventing homeowners from facing an increase in taxes every time their property is reassessed.

But the tax bills passed for Thunderbolt, Savannah and the county's school system do allow property values to rise at the rate of inflation or 3 percent, whichever is lower.

Stephens said he and Day are looking to sponsor legislation that would get rid of the inflation factor in those exemptions to create a freeze until the property is sold.

"What we'd like to do is to get them all consistent," he said.

Other lawmakers are looking at either passing similar exemptions or finding another way to get property-tax relief for their constituents.

Rep. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, said he would sponsor legislation to give every resident of Effingham County a $30,000 homestead exemption, a number that would rise to $50,000 for senior citizens.

Carter also wants the delegation to act on a referendum approved by voters calling for a countywide election chairman and an election board.

A different kind of government overhaul might be in the cards for Port Wentworth in Chatham County. Senate President Pro Tem Eric Johnson, R-Savannah, Sen. Regina Thomas, D-Savannah, and Carter are trying to find a way to allay the concerns of residents worried about representation after a wave of annexations.

The concerns of residents differ.

Newer residents of Port Wentworth are concerned they aren't being represented well enough right now, lawmakers say, while those who have lived there longer fear their voices may be drowned out in the future.

The solution, some believe, is to carve the city council into districts. Council members are currently elected at large.

Carter said he's hesitant to get involved right now.

"I don't want to legislatively tell Port Wentworth what they have to do," he said. "You can't rule out anything."

Thomas said local officials want to wait until after the 2010 census is complete, then use the fresh numbers to draw district lines.

"It's best to go on and do it now," she said.

The Brunswick Judicial Circuit, which covers Camden, Glynn and three other counties, could get a fifth superior court judge after the state body that oversees the courts recommended the additional seat.

"The Judicial Council rated that circuit as being in need of another judge, along with several other counties," said Rep. …