It’s a matter of when, not if.

At last week’s District 208 school board meeting, Interim Superintendent David Bonnette outlined a bleak long-range financial projection for Riverside-Brookfield High School, and it is apparent that the school will soon have to ask the voters to pay higher taxes to keep RB running at anywhere near its current level.

With revenues running far behind expenditures, a property tax referendum looms for the district.

When would RB seek to pass a referendum?

“I would say the spring of 2011,” said Bonnette.

District 208 school board President James Marciniak was less specific.

“I don’t have an expectation on the when, but there will be a when just based on how the tax-cap system affects us,” Marciniak said. “Looking at the projections, it’s probably not going to be any further out than two or three years.”

According to the projections, which assume no budget cuts, RB would run operating deficits of about $2.3 million in 2011, $2.9 million in 2012 and 3.9 million in 2013.

RB would run out of cash reserves by 2013, when its ending fund balance is projected to be a negative $1.6 million.

“It’s sobering,” said school board finance committee co-chair MariAnn Leibrandt when Bonnette finished his presentation.

Bonnette emphasized that the projections are not a budget.

“This is a summary document,” Bonnette said. “This is taking the current staff and moving them ahead a year.”

The projections assume future property tax growth of about 2.5 percent per year and enrollment growth at RB to 1,675 students in the 2014-15 school year.

“At least 75 percent and perhaps a little bit more of our costs are tied up in salaries and in benefits,” Bonnette said. “We’re looking at salaries to go up a little over 5 percent and we are looking for benefits to go up by 8 percent.”

The property tax cap law will limit District 208’s next tax levy to a mere one-tenth of 1 percent increase in the coming year. RB will be allowed to increase its next levy after that by 2.7 percent.

The tax cap law limits property tax levy increases to the consumer price index or 5 percent, whichever is less. Other revenues are flat or decreasing, Bonnette said, adding that RB lost over $1 million when major commercial property owners in the district won reductions in their assessments and that state and federal aid is not likely to increase.

“Our revenues are going up about zero, maybe a little bit less,” Bonnette said. “Our expenses are going up 5 percent, maybe a little bit more. You cannot sustain a budget with zero-percent revenue growth and 5-percent increase in expenses.

In a subsequent interview, Bonnette said that RB administrators are working to reduce the deficits and will provide an outline of tentative budgets to the school board in March.

“We need to either figure out a way to enhance revenues, and there aren’t any options there, or to reduce expenditures by $2.3 million,” Bonnette said.

It seems clear that the projections are laying the groundwork for a referendum campaign.

The sooner we start talking about this subject and laying out the information and letting people know what the picture is the better,” said Marciniak.

In 2006 voters approved raising taxes to borrow approximately $58 million to pay for the recent renovation and addition at RB. None of that money went towards operating expenses.

Finance committee co-chair Mike Welch said that he would not support borrowing money for working cash as RB did two years ago by selling bonds. That action did not require voter approval, although an unsuccessful attempt was made via petition to put the question on the ballot.

“I am not in favor of increasing taxes without a taxpayer vote,” Welch said.

Welch said he wants to see significant budget cuts before asking the voters for more money.