Prince George's County's top bureaucrats, feeling the fallout from an economic slowdown, were directed yesterday to prepare for budget cuts of up to 15 percent this year, the worst of three scenarios being considered.

At the same time, County Executive Parris N. Glendening also ordered immediate cost-cutting measures, including restrictions on travel, agency mass mailings, discretionary expenditures and capital outlays.

A hiring freeze in all departments except education has been in effect almost a month, Glendening said. Similar measures are taking place across the region. Maryland officials have projected a $270 million deficit and Virginia is seeking to cut $1.4 billion from its two-year budget to make ends meet.

Citing a projected revenue shortfall of $36.5 million, Glendening gave agency heads until Oct. 19 to prepare "revised work programs" envisioning reductions of 5, 10 and 15 percent. If the 15 percent cut were applied across the board, it would save almost $70 million.

Based on their responses, Glendening said he would notify the agencies by Nov. 1 how much each department will have to cut its spending. He said he does not envision an across-the-board 15 percent cut at this time.

"We will continue normalcy of services as much as possible," Glendening said after meeting with the agency heads. "At $36 million, we can. If it gets . . . worse, there will have to be some service reductions."

The current projected shortfall accounts for 7.9 percent of the county's budget of $459 million. That figure excludes the $540 million school budget, which Glendening has exempted from the cuts.

Anticipating some impact, however, school budget director Jim Beall said officials will be reviewing the budget to look for trims.

He said higher gas prices mean it will cost more to fuel the county's 1,000 buses, used primarily to transport students for court-ordered desegregation. "It is going to be a tough year," said spokeswoman Bonnie Jenkins. "We do not have a lot of slack in our budget."

Said Glendening, "Every instinct tells me {the shortfall} will be higher than $36.5 million." But he said he wants to "avoid a sense of panic or overreaction and work with people to make the reductions as painless as possible."

If the picture gets much worse, Glendening said he wold take "an entirely different approach, of significantly dramatic cuts, including {looking at} where we are on education. This process is only geared to get to $36.5 million."

"Realistically, you won't reach your spending targets through efficiency initiatives," Chief Administrative Officer John P. Davey wrote in a memo given department heads. "You will also have to pinpoint reductions in lower-priority programs in order to preserve your highest priority programs.

"The county has enjoyed the financial benefits of a healthy, vibrant economy in recent years . . . . As we face more troubled economic times, I am asking each of you to develop thoughtful, creative program options that will provide the best possible service levels to our citizens . . . . "

Staff writer Michele L. Norris contributed to this report.