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Henley: Without new revenue, county will go in the red by 2012

San Juan County will have a little more cash at the end of the year than was expected just several weeks ago, according to Auditor Milene Henley.

And though it offers a bit of wiggle room for the County Council in crafting next year's budget, Henley on Tuesday warned that the county will likely to run out of money by 2012 unless new revenue streams can be found.

Henley said collections for the year remain on track with projections and that expenses are running "slightly lower" than expected. The result, she said, is the county should have about $300,000 more in the bank by the end of the year than expected.

But that silver lining will be short-lived.

Henley said the county budget, as is, cannot be sustained over the long-haul, even given the numerous cuts proposed for next year. Those cuts include the layoff or reduction in hours of roughly 10 percent of the county workforce, closure of seven day-use parks and several public restrooms, a slash in spending on senior and youth programs, elimination of several health programs, such as flu-shot clinics, the elimination of a juvenile probation officer and cutting funding from the county for the fair.

"We still don't have a sustainable budget," Henley said.

Henley said Initiative 747 is largely to blame. Sponsored by Tim Eyman and approved by voters statewide in 2002, I-747 restricts the amount that property taxes, with exception of new construction, can be raised without voter approval to 1 percent annually. Prior to I-747, local governments — cities, towns, fire districts, ports and counties — could raise property taxes by up to 6 percent.

Even if the local property tax rate was increased by 10 percent beginning two years from today, Henley said the county, though it would be solvent for at least seven years, would lack enough revenue to restore those cuts proposed to go into effect next year.

"Even with a lid lift, even if you did something that dramatic, we will not ever be looking at restoring our current staff levels or our current service levels," she said.

I-747's 1-percent limitation, Henley added, is far less than the average annual rate of inflation. The 1 percent property tax increase will generate about $40,000 in new revenue, a drop in the bucket for a general fund that, as proposed, would total $13.3 million in 2009.

Council Chairman Howie Rosenfeld said, "Unless the growth in the cost of doing business drops below 1 percent, we are always going to be in a downward spiral."

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