Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett said yesterday that he would require thousands of county employees to take unpaid leave and shut down all but essential government services for two days as part of a package of budget cuts.

Leggett (D) said additional furlough days and midyear belt-tightening might be needed as the county confronts a projected shortfall of about $250 million for fiscal 2010. 'I'm trying to get ahead of the problem,' Leggett said. 'More than likely, we're going to be asking for much more.' As in other Washington area jurisdictions, Montgomery's elected leaders are dealing with rising fuel prices, stagnant job growth and declining home sales. Prince George's County officials are considering a week-long furlough. Fairfax County faces its largest shortfall in more than a decade. And Maryland officials predict a budget gap of up to $1 billion.

The Montgomery County Council, which controls the government's purse strings, took the unusual step in May of directing Leggett to find an additional $8 million in cuts as part of its fiscal 2009 budget compromise.

Leggett proposes saving about $6 million by forcing about 10,000 county employees to stay home for two days. The dates and details of the furloughs are being worked out, but Leggett said police, fire and other essential services would continue. Libraries would probably close, he said, but the public school and park systems, which have separate operating budgets, would not be affected.

In his memo to County Council President Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty), Leggett said he would wait until fall to schedule the furloughs, when he has a more complete financial picture and expects to present the council with a more extensive list of midyear budget cuts. 'Let's do it all in one swoop,' said Leggett, who does not need the council's approval to impose time off for employees.

Not since the depths of a recession in 1992 has the county resorted to shutting down government operations. Then, employees were forced to stay home for four days. During the last downturn, five years ago, the council raised income taxes, exceeded the county's limit on property tax revenue and suspended for several months general raises for county workers.

Council member Marc Elrich (D-At Large) said he hopes Leggett's team will look for such longer-term budget solutions as streamlining government operations before moving forward with the furloughs. 'I'd prefer long-term solutions,' he said. 'But the budget problem is real.' In addition to savings from unpaid leave, Leggett identified $1.6 million from higher-than-expected participation in the county's early retirement program: 152 employees took the buyout, and 54 jobs were eliminated.

About $1.1 million comes from a scaled-back pay-for-performance program for about 350 senior managers. The program has been limited to what are essentially bonuses worth 2 percent of an employee's salary instead of raises of as much as 6 percent.

Word of potential furloughs spread through county government offices this week, and the reaction from labor union leaders was mixed.

Gino Renne, who leads the Municipal and County Government Employee Organization, said before Leggett's announcement that furloughs are unnecessary and that 'if that's the direction he plans on going, he's going to meet resistance.' Walter E. Bader, past president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 35, said, 'We're not happy about losing the pay or the work, but we understand that it's an option.' Leggett said he is turning to furloughs now because of the size of the potential shortfall and the bleak economic outlook. Housing sales dipped by more than 14 percent in July, compared with the same period last year. County officials expect to spend $16.3 million more on fuel than anticipated because of rising costs.

Leggett also said he has fewer options after the last round of budget talks, in which the council agreed to his proposal to exceed the property tax limit. 'I'm not going to do that again. That was it,' Leggett said of surpassing the limit, which ties increases to the inflation rate.

The $4.3 billion budget deal did not raise the property tax rate, but bills for homeowners increased an average of 13.4 percent because of rising assessments.

In Prince George's, County Executive Jack B. Johnson (D) is grappling with a $48 million budget gap. He failed to persuade county unions to reopen contract negotiations and trim salary increases. Johnson has said furloughs are an option but has not publicly released a plan for plugging the budget hole. A high-ranking county official said last month that plans for furloughs were being finalized.

In Fairfax, officials have not ruled out the possibility of a significant increase in the tax rate to offset declining property values, but several said they hope to keep tax bills even.