ANYWHERE YOU look -- in the District, Maryland or Virginia -- similar messages of budget austerity are being delivered to the employees of city, state, county and local governments. The gist of the news in each realm is that something in the world of the government servant has got to go: a pay raise, a part of current pay or the whole job. That's not a pleasant proposition, and there is not a mayor, county executive or governor around who revels in making such a move. Still, with revenues drying up in alarming proportions, every government payroll from the District Building to Loudoun, Howard, Prince George's, Fairfax, Baltimore City and the rest, the options pretty much boil down to furloughs, layoffs or more taxes.

Government employee unions are scrambling their defensive units onto the field with every bit of protective gear they can come up with, including coalitions to lobby for new or higher taxes -- specifics to come later. The mood of union leaders and other heads of employee groups understandably runs the range from pained to furious. In Howard County, for example, a spokesman for the newly formed coalition of teachers, police officers, correctional officers and other public employees says, "We don't believe the community will stand by and watch the decline in services and decline in morale. This group has retained a consultant to analyze the county budget and help members suggest ways to raise revenues. As one labor leader puts it, "We intend to cooperate, but don't get the idea that we intend to surrender."

On the other side, city, county and state officials are by and large opposed to more taxing, duly noting the first rounds of constituent howls during last year's elections. Some local leaders pray for answers from higher up -- their state governments. Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, for example, says that without "significant state help" his government "would have to have significant layoffs." In Prince George's, County Executive Parris N. Glendening says he's considering layoffs of police officers and firefighters as part of the budget cutting. "Education and public safety have always been our highest priority," he says, "but we have a very serious situation in which you cannot exempt close to 70 percent of your total budget from any cuts." School Superintendent John A. Murphy has advised school board members that they have three options for "reconciling" a deficit, "none of them attractive": asking the unions to renegotiate their pay raises, cutting programs or laying off as many as 1,000 employees.

Whatever combination of steps each of these governments chooses would best be tied to some kind of management survey or job inventory to help determine which positions are essential and which are expendable -- as D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon is working on. In turn, union members and other rank-and-file government employees should be prepared for the distinct possibility that taxes won't be raised all that quickly -- and that the remaining options will be jobs for less money than anticipated or even bargained -- or no jobs at all.