The Calvert County commissioners have warned that they may further slash a staff-developed fiscal 2004 operating budget proposal that already calls for no spending increases because of anticipated state funding cuts.

The warning came Tuesday as the commissioners decided to abandon the practice in recent years of meeting individually with agency heads, elected officials and others seeking funding increases in the annual budget. At the same time, individual commissioners stressed that all funding requests -- not just those involving spending increases -- would be scrutinized this year.

"If you received a dollar last year, it doesn't mean you're going to get a dollar this year," Commissioners President David F. Hale (R-Owings) said.

Last fall, the Board of Commissioners whose terms ended in December already had directed county staff to develop a fiscal 2004 operating budget with no increases.

Since then, the dim state fiscal forecast has not improved. In a work session before Tuesday's regular public meeting, the new board even briefly considered changing the previous directive so that county staffers also would begin looking for funding cuts in the zero-growth budget. However, the board decided that, with the staff budget due next month, it was too late in the process, and the commissioners themselves would search for possible cuts.

"I think it would be bad if we changed direction," Hale said.

But instead of the special meeting with agency heads and others, the commissioners will review written proposals before making a final decision concerning the budget. Last year, the commissioners held special meetings with more than three dozen organizations or individuals.

"We're not going to ask for personal testimony," Hale said.

The commissioners did not, however, issue a mandate on whether the county's zero-growth budget policy should apply to all seeking funding. Such a decision could have complicated the commissioners' consideration of areas where they would want to make exceptions.

"If we make one exception to that list . . . all bets are off," Commissioner Gerald W. Clark (R-Lusby) said.

Logical exceptions to that mandate would include funding for education, public safety and parks and recreation, which is anticipating additional employees as part of an already approved plan to add park space, Hale has said.

The 2004 fiscal budget covers the 12-month period beginning July 1. The county staff has already assembled a $26.2 million Capital Improvement Program budget plan for the coming fiscal year.

Depending on the degree of the state spending cuts, the commissioners may be forced to look for more revenue even if they stick to a streamlined budget, but first they will consider expenditures. County finance officials already have devised a list of possible tax or fee increases. Those include a last-minute proposal to ask the state legislature for authority to impose a new real estate transfer tax.

The state budget crunch already is being felt in Calvert, with state transportation officials having told the commissioners in September that money woes had caused a halt to the county's top priority road project -- improvements at the intersection of Routes 2/4 and 231 in Prince Frederick. Calvert also learned that it stands to lose $1.67 million in state funds that are used to help pay for the repair and maintenance of local roads.

The county is also waiting to hear if it will lose state payments for income lost as a result of Maryland's deregulation of electric utilities. Calvert hopes to receive state reimbursements -- projected to be $6.1 million -- for revenues lost from its biggest taxpayer, the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant, because of deregulation.