Howard County's financial shortfall, which was predicted at $3 million to $5 million three weeks ago, now is pegged at $17 million to $18 million brought on by a sluggish economy, raising the possibility of a deficit and layoffs, county officials said yesterday.
The mushrooming financial problems led County Executive-elect Charles I. Ecker to fret about furloughing government employees.
"I hope we don't have any layoffs, but it may be necessary to avoid a deficit," said Mr. Ecker, a former deputy superintendent of county schools who won an upset victory over incumbent Elizabeth Bobo this month.
"Government expenses are largely people-driven. The county's fiscal condition looks bleaker every day."
Budget Director Raymond S. Wacks' economic forecast was equally gloomy.
"In the short run, we face a very difficult time ahead, and there is the potential that we may end the year with a deficit," he said.
Mr. Wacks, who has held the post since 1977, said it is the first time to his knowledge that the government has been faced with such a substantial shortfall.
Mr. Wacks said the revenue shortfall in the $286 million operating budget has resulted from a "falloff in development-based revenues from building permits and recordation taxes and a falloff in the projected income tax revenues."
Meanwhile, Mr. Ecker, who takes office Dec. 3, said he has asked whether the county legally could end its fiscal year next June with a deficit, because the charter requires a balanced budget. Barbara Cook, the county solicitor, said her office is reviewing the issue.
The projected shortfall means the county will face the coming fiscal year with no surplus funds, said Mr. Ecker, who already has warned that there could be higher property taxes, reduced services or a combination of both. "It is not going to be an easy year ahead," he warned.
In an effort to control spending, Mr. Ecker said he is considering setting limits on department budget increases, similar to an approach followed by former Executive J. Hugh Nichols. "It is only fair that they [the department heads] know up front what the county can afford," he explained. "There will be tough priorities set."