Jan. 1, 2000, may be hot stuff for computer buffs, historians, romantics and practicing Druids. But for many federal civil servants, the start of the new fiscal year--Oct. 1, 1999--is the day. It could be a time of great turmoil or great opportunity or both. Or so they think.

Washington is one of the few places on Earth where people pay much attention to the ramifications of a new federal fiscal year, much less get excited about it.

But many feds who are eager to take early retirement (with or without a buyout from Uncle Sam) think that all their problems will be solved, or that their plans will be ruined, when Oct. 1 arrives.

Factors contributing to Oct. 1 madness include:

* A complex situation.

* Wishful thinking on the part of retirement-hungry feds.

* Confusion in the human resources offices of some federal agencies.

* Internet and e-mail misinformation transmitted around the globe in the twinkling of an eye.

At the risk of confusing an already confused situation, here's the deal:

Buyouts: 10 federal agencies now have the authority to offer employees buyouts. Those agencies are the Defense, Agriculture and Energy departments, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Architect of the Capitol, the Government Printing Office, the Internal Revenue Service and the Bonneville Power Administration. That's official.

The fact that they have buyout authority doesn't mean they have to offer workers buyouts (up to $25,000, before deductions) to retire. But they can do it. Agencies not on that list can't, unless Congress approves some pending requests.

Early-outs: Most federal agencies have authority to offer employees the opportunity to take early retirement (with an immediate annuity). Normally civil servants must be age 55 with 30 years of service, 60 with 20 years or 62 with five years of service to qualify for an immediate pension.

During an early-out, agencies can select employees and offer them the chance to retire if they have 25 years of federal service regardless of age or if they have 20 years of service and are at least 50. Annuities of early retirees are reduced 2 percent for each year they are short of age 55. That seems steep to feds, but the early-retirement penalty in the private sector is often 5 percent for each year short of 65.

Early-outs and buyouts are a management option. Employees can request them, but agencies don't have to approve them.

Because of confusion in some human resources offices, some feds are under the impression that come Oct. 1, their agencies must offer them buyouts, early-outs or both. Others think there will be no more buyouts or early-outs after the start of the fiscal year. Folks circulating the bogus rumors on the Internet cite legislation or other authorization that doesn't exist.

What is happening is this:

As of Oct. 1, agencies will lose the authority to target early-outs. Legislation giving them the power to deny early-outs to certain employees is due to expire on that date. If that happens, agencies still will be able to offer early-outs but will have to offer them to everybody eligible, not just selected workers. It could halt early-outs in most agencies. What may happen is that Congress will extend the targeted early-out program for another year or two.

But many employees have misconstrued the expiration of targeted-buyout authority and concluded (incorrectly) that come Sept. 30 anybody who wants an early-out (or a buyout) gets one.

Bottom line: Buyouts will be available to agencies with buyout authority after Sept. 30. But agencies will continue to decide who gets them. Nobody is guaranteed a buyout.

The same is likely for the early-out program. Either Congress will extend the authority to target early-outs, or it won't. If the authority expires, early-outs will be possible, but less likely. Agencies will be reluctant to let anybody take early retirement if it means that specialists and other hard-to-hire employees (now excluded from early-outs) must be allowed to go.

If Congress extends the authority to target early-outs, the program will stay the same. That is, agencies will offer selected employees early retirement (perhaps with a buyout) but will continue to exclude others.

Whatever happens Oct. 1 isn't a big deal for the buyout or early-out program.

Mike Causey's e-mail address is causeym@washpost.com