The withering economy bit off a chunk of Washington County's budget plans for next year, forcing a scramble to find an additional $540,000 in cost savings.

A greater-than-anticipated loss in investment income and declining revenue from licensing, fees, and mortgage and deed taxes means some jobs will remain dark and some layoffs are possible, Molly O'Rourke, the county's deputy administrator and budget director, told commissioners Tuesday.

"It certainly has been difficult and challenging," she said.

O'Rourke and Administrator Jim Schug said they expect even more strains on Washington County's budget after they see the state budget forecast Thursday. The county could face significant reductions in state County Program Aid and grants for specific programs, they said.

O'Rourke said Washington County hasn't adopted a full-fledged hiring freeze because of essential services, like the jail, that can't be depleted. Dennis Hegberg, chairman of the County Board, responded that residents' demands on county government services -- probation, social services and child protection, for example -- grow as the economy worsens.

To pay for a projected $300,000 shortfall in investment income next year, the county eliminated a fiber optic project with Dakota County worth $200,000 and cut $100,000 from the sheriff's fuel budget. The latter was possible, O'Rourke said, because the cost of gasoline and diesel fell since earlier budget projections. The fiber optic high-speed broadband was planned to connect all county buildings for transmission of data, such as voter registration and corrections information, she said.

The county compensated for the projected loss of $240,000 in fee revenue by cutting an additional $85,000 from the fuel budget and by leaving some jobs dark in the county's licensing centers for a savings of $108,500, O'Rourke said. Elimination of a new maintenance worker position in Big Marine Regional Park, she said, saved $57,800. The Public Works Department will lend a worker to help in the park.

As the automobile industry declines, the county is seeing far fewer title transfers for vehicles such as trucks and snowmobiles, she said. Revenue from passports fell, too, and the county is collecting less money on land transactions.

O'Rourke said after Tuesday's board meeting that because of population growth, the county typically adds 20 to 25 positions each year. Next year, however, the county will have fewer overall positions, including at service counters, even as the county continues to grow.

"We're worried that because we're not adding staff there might be longer waiting lines," she said.

The county has proposed close to $146 million in operating expenses for 2009. The board will approve a final budget later this month.

Kevin Giles • 651-298-1554