ANNAPOLIS, DEC. 2 -- Ask Robert R. Neall about his grand plans for Anne Arundel County, and he will tell you to ask again on June 30, the end of the county's fiscal year. Only then, Neall said, will he know what promises he can afford to make.

Even then, Neall said, he doubts he can afford much.

Like other suburban Maryland leaders assuming office this week, Neall, a Republican who was sworn in as Anne Arundel's fourth county executive today, is taking control of a local government beginning to grapple with the unpleasant -- and unfamiliar -- effects of a withering economy.

Flat revenue, rising energy and maintenance expenses and wary lenders are problems Neall faces as he tries to put his imprint on the state's fifth-largest jurisdiction. As a result, Neall and others think it will take all his skill during the next few years just to preserve the gains made by his predecessor, Democrat James Lighthizer, even though demands for improved education, expanded social services and better environmental oversight remain high.

"Right now, fiscal concerns take precedence over everything else," Neall, 42, said last week. "I think if I solve those problems, it will give me more leeway to effectively deal with problems like education and the environment later."

At his inauguration at Anne Arundel Community College this afternoon, an event attended by 700 people, including Gov. William Donald Schaefer, Neall said he intends to rely heavily on the private sector to help the county weather a difficult period.

"I want to put together the most aggressive economic development program in the state . . . {and} build ours into a virtually recession-proof economy," he said. He sounded a similar theme when he told the audience he intends to devote this month to securing private contributions to nonprofit charities that feed the poor during the holidays.

Unlike many of its neighbors, Anne Arundel is not confronting a budget shortfall and officials have avoided layoffs or other cuts, a situation Neall attributes to Lighthizer's prudent management and a $16 million budget surplus.

But Neall, saying he does not want to jeopardize that enviable standing, expects to order a hiring freeze as one of his first official acts. He has warned department heads that he will refuse requests for additional funding before July 1 and, as an "exercise," asked them to plan how they would reduce their budgets by 10 percent.

According to county budget analysts, the real challenge for Neall will come as he shapes his first budget next spring. Early projections show that the county's income, which totaled $617 million this fiscal year, probably will not grow, while the need for services is increasing.

Complicating matters is the fact that contracts for the county's 11 labor unions expire June 30. Negotiations with teachers, police officers, firefighters and the rest of the county's 11,000 public employees will be one of the first tasks facing the new administration. Given the county's flat revenue picture, officials say, the talks could not come at a worse time.

Neall said each 1 percent salary increase given to the county work force would cost about $4.7 million. For that reason, "it's a possibility" that he may deny the employees any salary increases at all, as Lighthizer did during his first year, Neall said.

At the same time, Neall said, he intends to reduce the government's work force gradually. Likely targets are the county's planning and public works departments, he said. He would not list specific programs he would cut, although observers said they would look to some of Lighthizer's pet projects, including popular but secondary services such as historic preservation and community landscaping.

"In these uncertain times I believe we must focus on fundamentals, to do what is necessary rather than what is nice," Neall said during his inaugural address.

Limited funds also are expected to set up a major debate over education spending and whether money is the answer for a school system that has a reputation for being average.

Anne Arundel's poor showing on a recent state-issued performance "report card" upset many parents and educators, who say the administration must do more. The county scored far below Montgomery and Howard counties. Although Anne Arundel is the state's fifth-wealthiest county, with a median household income of $46,600, it ranks seventh in spending per student.

Among the education initiatives Neall will be asked to champion are a $20 million program for putting computers in each county school, a proposal for a seven-period high school day and a plan for relieving teachers of routine administrative duties by hiring aides.

"Bobby will have a chance very early on to show whether he is committed to quality education," said Tom Paolino, president of the Teachers Association of Anne Arundel County. Paolino said his organization would be shopping for a salary increase of 7 or 8 percent, as well as additional teaching positions, to achieve the other changes.

Although controlling growth is not expected to pose so large a problem for Neall as it did for Lighthizer -- largely because the economic slowdown has hit the construction industry hard -- the new executive is inheriting a government still playing catch-up on providing the infrastructure for a population that ballooned by 14 percent during the 1980s.

Decisions on whether to proceed with plans for a new county jail, a new courthouse, an additional county government building and agricultural land preservation, recycling and affordable housing programs are all ones Neall will have to make in fairly short order. Meanwhile, new federal water quality regulations could require expensive improvements to the county's waste water and storm drainage systems.

Although many politicians would dread the task of having to make do with less, knowing they will be putting their popularity at risk with each cut, the role of "budget buster" is one with which Neall, the former minority leader in the Maryland House of Delegates, appears to be comfortable.

During his recent campaign, he warned voters of the tough times ahead, saying they would not always be pleased with the decisions he would make. The fact that a majority of them voted for him anyway, Neall said, is a sign that many Anne Arundel residents are prepared for a bumpy ride.

Still, Neall said he is aware that he has to prove himself. One of the highest items on his agenda, he said, is winning the confidence of residents and the newly bipartisan County Council.

"I am acutely aware that I was the winner of a close election," he said. "It will be my job to reassure the people who voted for me that they did the right thing and the people who didn't or stayed home that they ought to take another look."

KEY ISSUES FACING COUNTY

COUNTY FINANCES: Although Anne Arundel is not facing a budget deficit, revenue is running behind projections. Neall said his first challenge will be to close the current fiscal year with a balanced budget and that he probably will order a hiring freeze. Analysts are predicting the county's income will not grow and could decline at a time when expenses and demands for services are increasing, making next year's situation look even worse.

LABOR: Contracts for the county's 11 labor unions will expire at the end of the fiscal year, and negotiations on new contracts are set to begin soon. County officials say the talks could not come at a worse time because of the government's flat revenue picture. Each 1 percent salary increase given to public employees would cost $4.7 million, money that would have to come from a currently funded program or project.

EDUCATION: The local school system's poor showing on a recent state performance "report card" upset many educators and parents, who say the new administration will have to devote more funding if progress is to be made in improving the county's public schools. One of the biggest and most controversial expenditures involves a multimillion-dollar plan to put computers in every school.

CAPITAL PROJECTS: Neall will have to decide whether to move forward on several expensive building or land projects already in the works, including plans for a county jail, a new courthouse, a farmland preservation program, an urban renewal project for Glen Burnie and an additional government office complex.