Howard County's budget shortfall could hit $18 million by the end of the fiscal year, according to budget officials, prompting renewed discussions with school administrators about possible cuts in education.

The school budget has been spared so far from county belt-tightening prompted by the region's economic slowdown, and school officials are under no obligation to make cuts.

But County Administrator Buddy W. Roogow said he hopes school officials will bear their share of reductions. He already has directed government agencies under his purview to prepare for cuts of up to $12 million. The county has halted most new hiring, limited travel expenses and put off some capital expenditures.

County Executive-Elect Charles I. Ecker warned that next year's budget could be hit twice as hard as the current $286.4 million operating plan. Revenue for this year's budget was boosted by a $21.5 million surplus from the preceding year, an amount equal to about 42 cents on the county's property tax rate of $2.44 per $100 assessed value. There probably will be no surplus for next year's budget if the economy doesn't improve, forcing further spending cuts or a tax increase, Ecker said.