By Noah Haglund Herald Writer
EVERETT — This spring, Snohomish County leaders fretted about a revenue shortfall that could leave a hole of about $5.5 million in next year’s budget.
County Executive Aaron Reardon pitched a new 0.1 percent sales tax as a way to plug the hole. If the tax didn’t go through, Reardon warned, it might force the county to cull from the ranks of sheriff’s deputies, prosecutors and other criminal justice workers to trim expenses.
It’s unclear whether any of the cuts discussed this spring remain in play. Since then, Reardon’s tax proposal has fallen by the wayside in the face of overwhelming political opposition. On the other hand, the overall financial picture for the county has brightened.
Reardon should provide details on how he intends to balance the county’s finances when he announces his 2013 preliminary budget Friday.
After that, the County Council has much of the fall set aside to examine the executive’s proposal and make changes, which Reardon can later approve or attempt to overturn.
County finance director Roger Neumaier said this week that the county’s budget remains fragile and that Reardon would do nothing to put it at risk.
“The Puget Sound region, while it’s doing better than many areas of the country, we can’t expect a quick turnaround,” Neumaier said. “From that standpoint, we’re seeing slow growth.”
During the second quarter of 2012, the county’s revenue picture improved compared to the first quarter, Neumaier informed the County Council over the summer. That owed partly to more stability in the real estate market.
“Make no mistake, a major recovery is not on the horizon,” Neumaier said at the time.
The county’s operating budget has hovered around $200 million in recent years. More than 70 percent of those dollars go to the courts, public safety and related functions of government. Significant budget cuts, if required, would almost certainly mean eliminating jobs in those areas.
“It’ll continue to be difficult for the next couple of years,” County Council Chairman Brian Sullivan said.
Sullivan said that instead of cutting jobs he would rather raise revenue through an increase in the portion of the property tax collected for the county’s general levy.
An increase of 1 percent would raise more than $700,000 and cost the owner of a home with an average assessed value of $241,000 an extra $2.24 per year in taxes, according to council staff.
In the spring, the county’s financial forecasts predicted a gap of $5.5 million or more if the county’s 2012 spending pattern were to continue into next year.
The revenue drop owed partly to a loss of state money, including funds for public defenders and contracts for housing state prisoners at the Snohomish County Jail.
The county also stands to lose state liquor tax money, following privatization earlier this year.
The county faces rising expenses, including debt payments and unforeseen overtime costs.
During last year’s budget process, Reardon approved the county’s overall 2012 budget but vetoed a 1 percent hike in the county roads levy. The council later overrode Reardon’s veto. The increase applies to the total property tax collected from unincorporated areas, not to individual tax bills.
Reardon’s budget address is scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday at the county’s Robert J. Drewel building.
The County Council has planned public meetings in October and November on the 2013 budget before it goes to a vote during the week of Thanksgiving.
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Key public meetings on the 2013 Snohomish County budget, all at the county’s Robert J. Drewel building, 3000 Rockefeller Ave., Everett:
•Friday, 11 a.m. — County Executive Aaron Reardon delivers his 2013 proposed budget, 1st floor meeting room.
Oct. 9, 6:30 p.m. — County Council budget forum, 8th floor council chambers.
Oct. 31, 10:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m. — public hearing on the executive’s proposed budget, 8th floor council chambers.
Nov. 8, 1:30 p.m. — Council chairman’s budget ordinance released, 8th floor council chambers.
Nov. 19, 10:30 a.m. — Public hearing on council chairman’s budget ordinance, 8th floor council chambers.