Howard County government administrators have begun to put off some hiring and spending this year as a precaution against a possible financial crunch brought on by the region's economic slowdown.

Budget Administrator Raymond S. Wacks said the county has postponed until spring much of its discretionary spending on equipment, supplies and out-of-state travel. The county also is putting on hold some hiring for positions not related to public safety, he said.

"We think it's prudent to hold off where we can until we can better assess what is happening," Wacks said.

Based on taxes collected so far, the county may find it difficult to meet its revenue projections for the fiscal year that ends in June.

"It's going to be close," Wacks said.

Evidence of a looming budget crunch abounds. Ronald S. Weinstein, the county's auditor, already has begun to track a downturn in the money the county receives in property taxes, transfer taxes and taxes on the sale of land.

Those three sources, which account for about half the county's $286.4 million budget, are on a pace to fall about $2.1 million shy of projections, he said.

Last year, property tax collections ran $6 million over estimates. They ran $7.8 million over estimates the year before.

The new revenue figures could carry even larger implications for next year's budget. County officials traditionally have carried over sizable surpluses from one year to the next, easing the pressure to increase taxes. This year's budget anticipated a surplus of $24.5 million.

Weinstein cautioned that the revenue estimates are preliminary, based on tax collections during the first two months of the fiscal year that began in July.

But last year, he said, the county collected about 86.6 percent of its property taxes during that period, "so you get a pretty good picture" of where things are heading.

Aside from property, transfer and recordation taxes, the county depends largely on its share of state income taxes to pay for county programs.

Weinstein said it is too early to say whether the county will collect the $88 million it projected in income taxes. But he said if the economy continues to slow, income tax revenue probably will drop as well.

Weinstein examined county revenues at the request of County Council member C. Vernon Gray (D-District 3), who said the estimates indicate "that we need to begin taking some belt-tightening measures."

The auditor also looked at the possible impact of rising heating oil costs.

The county school system estimated that it will use 1.5 million gallons of heating oil this year; the county government expects to use 229,000 gallons.

Weinstein said the county government and school system budgets assume that heating oil will cost about 57 cents and 63 cents a gallon respectively.

Heating oil now costs about $1.03 a gallon because of Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in the oil-rich Persian Gulf.

The difference in price, if it were to remain unchanged for the rest of the year, could mean a cost increase of $690,000 for the schools and $92,000 for the county government.

The actual increase probably will not be that severe, said Sidney Cousins, associate schools superintendent for finance and operations.

Cousins said much of the heating oil needed by schools this year was purchased before the price shot up.

In addition, the school system bought heating oil "futures" guaranteeing officials the right to buy about half the oil the schools will need for the coming year at the old, lower prices.

"We should break even if things don't change too dramatically," Cousins said.