Montgomery County agencies are facing a fourth straight year of cutting back as they prepare their fiscal 2013 budgets, though officials say the cuts likely will be minimal -- a relief after three years of major downsizing.

County departments have been asked to prepare to cut 2 percent from their operating budgets in the coming fiscal year. Fire and Rescue Services, the Police Department and Health and Human Services have been asked to cut 1 percent. For some departments, the downsizing will mean eliminating services, Chief Administrative Officer Tim Firestine said in a memo.

The requested cutbacks do not include changes made to salaries and employee benefits, which make up 80 percent of the county's budget and are currently being discussed in contract negotiations with the county unions. They exclude Montgomery County Public Schools, which comprises about half of the county's operating budget.

After some departments were asked to cut as much as 15 percent for the fiscal 2012 budget, and after the Office of Management and Budget warned department heads over the summer that they should expect to cut upwards of 10 percent from their budgets, these small cuts should come as a relief, Firestine said.

"We're all being a bit optimistic about budget cuts that will be a lot easier than they've been the last three years," he said.

In the spring, the county slashed budgets for the third year in a row when faced with a $1 billion budget hole in fiscal 2012. Over the last few years, 1,000 positions have been cut, employees have seen benefits dramatically reduced and some departments' budgets have become a small fraction of what they once were -- like the library system, whose budget has been reduced by about 30 percent since fiscal 2009.

Still, more cuts are necessary if the county wants to fill an estimated $100 million gap in the next fiscal year's budget.

""Recovery ... in the county has moved along slowly, but it's been very slowly," said County Council Staff Director Stephen Farber, who is preparing a detailed fiscal analysis to present to the council next week. "Our revenues have not yet bounced back to the levels that they attained several years ago."

Though the cuts are smaller than they've been, they also might be harder to make when so many have already been made, Farber said.

Some departments, like Fire and Rescue Services and the county police, have been clamoring for staffing increases, which will be tough if their budgets shrink.