Howard County department heads, including the acting police chief, have been told to make deeper cuts in their budgets for next year, prompting officials throughout the government to say layoffs or furloughs are likely.
Last month, County Executive Charles I. Ecker said he planned to cut government spending by 10 percent but still expected to have to raise the property tax rate above its current level of $2.45 for each $100 of assessed value.
But on Friday afternoon, he asked all departments except the school system, library and community college to make cuts of about 16 percent in their budgets for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
"We have asked the departments to look at both furloughs and layoffs," said Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget officer. "There probably will be layoffs."
Mr. Ecker said he asked for the 16 percent cuts because he wanted to keep the increase in the tax rate to a minimum.
"I'd like to get as near zero as possible," he said, noting that tax increases were hard on the elderly, the young and the unemployed. "It's just not a good idea to raise taxes much during a recession."
Mr. Ecker acknowledged that layoffs or furloughs were likely but said he doubted government spending could be cut much more than 16 percent without cutting too deeply into essential services.
"It's sure a hard decision to make because I hate to see people lose their jobs, but I might have to do it to have a fiscally sound government," he said.
Mr. Wacks said the goal was to reduce county government spending from its current yearly level of $113 million to $95 million.
The order for deeper cuts caused "panic, shock and disbelief" among the command staff of the Police Department, said acting Chief James N. Robey.
"The bulk of our money is in people, and it is almost impossible to reach that 16 percent cut without layoffs," said Chief Robey.
He said the department would have to cut $3.3 million from its existing $20.8 million budget to meet the goal.
The acting chief said he told his staff that the cuts in personnel could be all through the department.
"Even our senior people are not immune," Chief Robey said.
He said the command staff was reviewing the number of officers with 25 to 30 years of experience on the force who could qualify for retirement.
"We are looking at it, but we can't force them into retirement, although their retirements could save the jobs of newer police officers," Chief Robey said.
The chief of the Department of Public Works, the county's largest with 420 employees, also said layoffs would be inevitable unless he could find a way to increase by $2 million the amount raised next fiscal year from fees for solid waste disposal and permits.
James M. Irvin, the public works chief, said otherwise there would be "fairly significant cuts in staff, as much as 5 percent to
10 percent" of those paid from the operating budget. About 130 of the employees are paid through a separate utility fund.
"We have not completed our plans, but we are pretty much down to the bare bones," Mr. Irvin said. "It is real tough to make up $2 million in additional cuts. It is not a pleasant situation."
Mr. Wacks said the Ecker administration planned to announce the specific impact of the cuts Feb. 27. The public will have an opportunity to respond at a public hearing March 6 at 7:30 p.m. in the Banneker room of the George Howard Building in Ellicott City.