THE TELL-TALE SIGNS OF VACANCY -- eight unopened newspapers -- littered the sidewalk.
Apart from that, there was nothing to indicate that except for public safety employees, county government had shut down -- its 1,600 employees furloughed without pay until Jan. 2.
The parking lot was mostly empty. Just enough cars, vans and pickup trucks to be deceiving -- 11 vehicles in the metered spaces closest to the building, eight cars in the employee lot reserved for subcompacts and nine cars out back in spaces reserved for high level countyemployees.
Cars parked under the reserved signs indicated that the deputy chief administrative officer, the director of finance, the director of information services, the director of planning and zoning,and several employees from the bureau of engineering and the bureau of highways were inside at their desks.
A tug at the doors and a peek through the window seemed to indicate otherwise. The doors were locked, and the hallways were empty.
That was very confusing to a man who said he had been called 40 minutes earlier and told to come over and pick up some permits.
"Are you sure they're closed?" he asked state health department employees working next door.
"Yes," they assured him, offering him the use of their phone to make sure.
At most extensions, no one was answering. At several extensions, including those of the county executive, the caller heard a recorded message:
"The Howard County government is observing a furlough period during the Christmas and New Year's holidays," a male voice said. "Offices will reopen at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday, Jan. 2."
A call to the County Council office yielded a similar message spoken by a female voice after four rings. "Have a happy holiday," the recorded voice toldcallers. Reached at his home Friday afternoon, County Executive Charles I. Ecker confirmed that he and several other county employees hadbeen working on their furlough days, and that someone may have indeed been issuing permits.
Employees were working in the property deeds office, Ecker said, to close and record year-end transactions for tax purposes.
Ecker said he had come to the office Thursday and Friday morning to catch up on correspondence, dictate some letters and return some phone calls. He said he would do the same thing next week.
If people were frustrated at not being able to reach employees in the county building, they apparently suffered in silence.
No onedropped by the police station next door to complain, although Sgt. Gary Garder, a department spokesman, said he did receive two calls from people who had tried unsuccessfully to reach county offices.
At the Recreation and Parks office on North Ridge Road, phones rang and rang with no message. A note written in a red felt pen on yellow scratch paper informed visitors that the office would be closed until Jan. 2.
Despite the note's invitation to "have a good holiday," a woman who had driven to the office with her family was not amused.
"It's stupid," she said, muttering under her breath as she left the building with her husband and son.
"Can't reach them on the phone andthen drive over here and find they're closed till next week."
The government closing is a cost-cutting measure designed to shave $1 million from the county's $14.5 million deficit.