How severe is the county's economic situation? So bad you might have to shovel your own street the next time it snows, County Executive James N. Robey (D) said.

With all the white stuff this winter, the county's budget for snow removal is already $250,000 over budget, he said during his State of the County speech last week. And the costly snow removal process is melting an already tight spending plan. Armed with a snow shovel as a prop, Robey told the audience that they might have to take care of their own streets.

He was joking, right?

Probably, although Robey might not mind a few industrious souls willing to help out their county government during these tough times.

Meanwhile, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) released his budget, and it wasn't all good news for Howard. While the Board of Education got nearly everything it asked for, the county could be getting $6 million less than last year for its operating budget, said Raymond S. Wacks, the county budget director.

Meanwhile the county government is operating with 94 vacant positions, Robey said, a "staffing level equal to the workforce of 1996." Roofs leak in 16 county buildings, including the one that houses Robey's office: "I don't mean drip -- I mean leak," he said.

He lamented how the "courthouse is overcrowded, causing safety and health issues for employees working there." And road repaving has essentially been stopped for the past two years.

An Anti-Smoking Hit

Everyone knows it's illegal to sell tobacco to minors. But did you know it's also illegal in Howard County to even keep cigarettes and such in front of the counter where anyone has access to them?

Some local merchants are finding that out the hard way from inspectors who've also been cracking down on those who sell tobacco to underage kids.

A little over a year ago the county passed a law that made selling tobacco to minors a civil violation that would be enforced by the Health Department rather than a criminal one enforced by police. That allowed inspectors to simply issue a fine, similar to a parking ticket, without a court hearing.

Since then, inspectors have issued $24,200 in fines, according to the Smoke Free Howard County Coalition. In 2000, the county also forced stores to eliminate self-service tobacco displays, meaning the products would have to be behind the counter.

The result: "Howard County offers one of the most comprehensive anti-smoking programs in Maryland," according to Shanta Williams, director of tobacco control for the county's Health Department.

But state funding under the budget unveiled by Ehrlich last week cuts aid for anti-smoking programs to local jurisdictions from $14 million to $8 million. In Howard, officials had been expecting $557,000 but will get $318,000, said Glenn Schneider, the coalition's legislative committee chairman.

"This budget is a slap in the face," he said. "That's a pretty substantial cut. . . . Our progress and promise for future success could go down the drain if our state lawmakers don't fight for our county's tobacco program."

Waiting for Word

There are no signs of a nation preparing for war at the Ellicott City Armory at the the intersection of Routes 29 and 103. On a recent afternoon, only seven cars were in the parking lot. The halls, decorated with pictures of old war heros, were mostly vacant. And Army Maj. Joseph Wagner, of the 121st Engineer Battalion, was preoccupied with paperwork, not girding his soldiers for war.

The unit has a storied history that dates to World War II, when it stormed the beaches at Normandy and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. More recently, the National Guard troop has been called for stateside duty such as helping with snow removal. But the unit is trained for getting infantry troops to the front lines: building bridges, roads, airstrips, even clearing land mines and barbed wire.

Wagner, 41, doesn't know if his unit will get called for duty, and the uncertainty tugs at him. It's there when he talks to his wife and children, ages 8 and 2, like an undertow.

He's updated the will, and he has already talked to his 8-year-old about how he may have to "go help the country" for a while.

But for the most part, he doesn't talk about it much. "I don't want to cause a lot of anxiety," he said. And he still lives by a peace-time rhythm: his day job at the armory, home in Burtonsville in time for dinner, training with the rest of his National Guard troop one weekend a month two weeks a year. Twice a week he's at his son's wrestling practices and at the matches during the weekend.

Any day that could be interrupted by orders to go to Iraq. But in the meantime, he can't do anything but wait.