As they struggle to meet Howard County Executive Charles I. Ecker's order to cut spending by 12 percent in the next 2 1/2 years, some department heads have proposed cuts in essential services -- in effect, daring Mr. Ecker to make unpopular cuts or none at all.
"In some cases, the county executive is not accepting the cuts and is saying, 'Go back to the drawing board,' " Raymond Wacks, Mr. Ecker's budget administrator, said yesterday, declining to identify the departments or cuts. "In some cases he [Mr. Ecker], has said, 'I'll accept what you've done.' "
The sensitivity of the process was illustrated yesterday as Mr. Ecker and his staff met behind closed doors for an hour with
officials from the Department of Public Works, the agency asked to take the hardest cut -- $1.9 million in the next fiscal year alone.
No one would discuss the particulars afterward.
"I would, but I've been asked not to talk," said Public Works Director James M. Irvin.
Mr. Ecker said that no public works services will be cut, but he declined to provide details. "Just general things we went over," Mr. Ecker said of the meeting.
The county executive has been meeting with other top officials this week and plans to propose fiscal 1997 cuts -- $4.9 million worth -- to the Howard County Council by April 8.
The options raised by department heads range from the sweeping to the small, according to interviews with county officials. They include plans to:
* Lay off an unspecified number of staff members in various departments.
* Replace desk-duty police officers with civilians.
* Stop providing free electrical code inspections.
* Insert permanent foul lines on softball fields instead of continually laying down white powder.
* Spray county grounds less often for bugs.
Mr. Ecker has stressed in recent interviews that none of the cuts is set in stone -- particularly layoffs.
"There's a lot of things I don't want to throw out [for discussion], because they might not happen," he said.
Mr. Ecker and department heads are waiting to see how many workers take early retirement offers, which will not expire until April 20.
Administration officials have said that if 50 workers take the offer, savings could amount to $1.3 million a year. Some County Council members expect fewer employees to take early retirement.
The $4.9 million in cuts for the fiscal year that begins in July represent a 4.4 percent trim from the county's current budget of $111 million for everything but schools and interest payments on loans.
Mr. Ecker, who does not control the school budget, will have to cut an additional $8.4 million from his departments during the next 2 1/2 years to reach his 12 percent target.
After public works, the county police were asked to take the second largest cut -- $500,000. But that total is only 2.1 percent of the department's budget.
Police Chief James N. Robey said moving some officers from desk jobs and replacing them with less expensive civilian workers "will not, in any way, shape or form, affect the quality of police service."
At the Department of Corrections, Director James N. Rollins has to cut 3.2 percent from his $6.3 million budget.
"My cuts include personnel," Mr. Rollins said. He stopped short of saying layoffs. But when asked if he was referring to savings through attrition, Mr. Rollins said, "I only have one vacancy."
At the Department of General Services, an agency that maintains county office buildings, Director Rufus F. Clanzy said he must retain a sufficient labor force.
"I can computerize all I want and it won't unstop a toilet," said Mr. Clanzy, who was asked to cut $355,000, or 3.6 percent, from his budget.
He has proposed a variety of cuts -- from diminished pest control to not providing uniforms for 911 operators. He is hoping enough workers take early retirement. If they don't, "I don't see how I'm going to get it done without layoffs," Mr. Clanzy said.
At the Department of Finance, Director Dale B. Neubert plans to fill only one of four vacancies -- a move that upset workers being asked to increase their workload.
For the fiscal year that begins in July, here is the total budget in dollars by department and the percentage each has been asked cut:
* Police: $24.3 million, 2.1 percent.
* Public Works: $20.5 million, 9.3 percent.
* General Services: $9.9 million, 3.6 percent.
* Libraries: $7.3 million, 3.8 percent.
* Corrections: $6.3 million, 3.2 percent.
* Finance: $4.0 million, 5 percent.
* Administration: $3.9 million, 3.9 percent.
* Inspections, Licenses and Permits: $3.7 million, 5.4 percent.
* Health: $3.5 million, 4.3 percent.
* Planning and Zoning: $3.2 million, 1.3 percent.
* State's attorney: $2.8 million, 1.8 percent.
* Citizen Services: $2.3 million, 4.4 percent.
* Sheriff: $2 million, 2 percent.
* County Council: $1.8 million, 4.3 percent.
* Circuit Court: $1.7 million, 3.5 percent.
* Office of Law: $1.4 million, 3.5 percent.
* Economic Development: $515,290, 4.9 percent.
* County Executive: $410,860, 3.7 percent.
* Fire: $113,740, 3.6 percent. (Most of the Fire Department's $18.4 million budget comes from the fire tax and is not included in this total.)