County budget officials are bracing for a tough battle, as rising tax bills, plummeting stock portfolios and election-year jockeying present a perfect storm of competing interests.

County Executive Craig S. Gerhart's $614.5 million spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1 represents a 13 percent increase. Although the plan includes a 4-cent real estate tax rate cut, rising assessments could mean that typical homeowners will see a 12 percent increase in their tax bills.

Supervisor John D. Jenkins (D-Neabsco) called for budget changes that would eliminate any real tax increase. Other supervisors up for reelection appear uncomfortable with the prospect of a second year of double-digit tax bill increases.

Added to the mix is the Prince William Taxpayers Alliance, fresh from a victory in the state sales tax referendum last year. The alliance is asking local candidates to pledge to limit spending to the rate of inflation and population growth.

"Government spending will always expand to the amount of money available to it," said Rick Hendrix, an alliance leader. "I don't think you'll find very many governments streamlined and fat-free."

On the other side are those who believe that their programs should be added to the budget, such as nonprofit organizations hurt by the fundraising scandal at the United Way and firefighters looking for additional staffing.

Caught in the middle are some new spending priorities laid out by Gerhart, which could find their way to the budget-cutting floor before the final budget is passed in April.

For example, the spending plan calls for:

* $7.6 million for county employee raises. The plan calls for a 3.5 percent merit raise pool in addition to a 3 percent across the board raise to make the county's pay plan more competitive with neighboring jurisdictions.

* $786,089 for a Community Improvement Program, which will respond more quickly to community complaints about zoning, building maintenance, blight and other problems. The funding would be in addition to current enforcement activities.

* $374,397 for a Seamless Customer Support Initiative, which will assign and track requests for county services. The service will cost an additional $395,000 for equipment next year and $47,000 a year after that.

* $216,222 for an additional litter and weed control crew, plus $70,000 to double the amount of landscaping money split among the seven magisterial districts to $20,000 each.

* $102,000 for an expanded employee tuition assistance and development and training program. It includes improved employee orientation sessions, basic Spanish as a second language and "personal growth and development coaching and mentoring techniques."

The budget also includes funding for a new video-conferencing system, $2,000 to add a luncheon to the County Executive Award Program and $1,500 to operate and maintain the county's information sign at the McCoart building.

"There is always a way to cut budgets," Gerhart said. "Do we have to expand the employee training program? No. Whether we want to invest in employees over the long haul is certainly a fair question, as is the additional litter crew and landscaping money.

"That's why we go through the budget debate," Gerhart said. "The question is whether we have some catch-up to do on services. Clearly I think the answer is yes. If you look at the growth of the budget it is where we want it to go to: transportation, public safety and schools. The real question is how fast do you want to catch up."