Virginia officials plan to eliminate the jobs of many directors of the 124 local social service agencies, eliciting protests from officials across the state.

The agency directors, who administer a complex array of welfare programs and services such as job training and child protection, have been targeted in an effort to save about $2 million a year in the state part of social service administration.

All but the largest cities and counties in Virginia will be asked to share social service directors as part of the effort to eliminate a two-year, $1.4 billion state budget deficit. It will be largely up to the agency chiefs themselves to decide who among them will stay and who will go.

Some of the directors, particularly in Northern Virginia, are trying to secure exemptions, suggesting that their local governments will retaliate by spending millions less on social service administration if the state plan goes through, hurting service recipients directly.

"A fair number of us are going to disappear," predicted Ricardo Perez, who heads the social service department in fast-growing Prince William County.

If one director had to manage agencies in three counties, "It would be like a CEO trying to manage two additional companies without additional help," Perez said.

In Northern Virginia, all jurisdictions except Fairfax County are potentially affected by the proposal, which comes on the heels of other state fund cuts designed to trim the state deficit.

Under the plan, all but the state's 15 largest social service departments will buddy up in groups, with each group sharing a director. For example, if three counties consolidate their top administrations, one of the three directors would run all the departments. Two would lose their jobs.

State officials have set a March 1 deadline for localities to decide how they're going to play this game of Virginia Roulette.

Jurisdictions that refuse to go along are being told they will lose all their state and federal funding.

Virginia officials argue that a lot of state and local money could be saved by having fewer social service administrators.

Some local officials say the plan may be the first step toward a state takeover of social service departments.

According to John Holdren, who heads the Virginia League of Social Services Executives, "If the state wants to run the system, let them pay for it."

Holdren, social service chief in James City County, says he and his peers likely will ask the General Assembly to "blow the whistle" on the state plan and commission a study of the overall social service system.

"There's a lot of work to be done" on the consolidation plan, conceded Bobby Vassar, Virginia's deputy secretary of health and human resources.

City and county governments willing to pay their agency directors totally with local funds may be declared exempt from the forced consolidation, Vassar said.

Jurisdictions now exceeding state guidelines for funding social service support staff positions -- including Arlington, Alexandria, Prince William and Loudoun County -- may also be exempted, he said.

"That would make me happy," said Carmen Nazario, chief of the Loudoun agency. "The issue of the director's job is not what is important," she said. "It's what does that mean for the office operation and the community."