Cargo shipments passing through Baltimore dropped slightly last year, but port officials remain optimistic that first-quarter reports for 1986 will show a substantial increase in cargo handling.

Figures released by the Maryland Port Administration this week show the amount of general cargo handled here dropped 3.9 percent from 5.8 million tons in 1984 to 5.6 million tons last year.

But port officials said the loss was not nearly as great as they had anticipated when they released estimates in December that projected a 6 percent decline to 5.5 million tons.

Miles Maguire, a port administration spokesman, said last week that one reason the loss was not as great as officials had feared was that the port had a strong fourth quarter. During the past three months of 1985, there was a 9.5 percent increase in the amount of merchandise that passed through the port, he said.

In Baltimore last year, bulk cargo shipments rose 6.9 percent to 20.5 million tons compared to 19.2 million tons in 1984. Port officials said coal shipments rose 6.2 percent to 7.7 million tons from 7.2 million tons in 1984, while grain shipments rose 147 percent to 4.7 million tons from 1.9 million tons, in part because of Soviet agricultural purchases.

Port officials are anticipating that first-quarter reports for 1986 will show a substantial increase over the same period in 1985, in part because of the port administration's efforts to attract more cargo, Maguire said.

Baltimore recently got a new port administrator, David Wagner, when Gregory Halpin retired, and also began offering subsidies and long-term contracts to boost Baltimore's competitiveness with other ports.

"We're happy, of course, but we realize that the figures still show a decline," Maguire said. "There was an increase in business out there along the East Coast ports. We hardly think we're out of the woods."

Norfolk, one of Baltimore's chief rivals in cargo handling, reported a 33.8 percent increase in general cargo.

John Hunter, director of research at the Virginia Port Authority, told The Baltimore Sun that total cargo handled at Norfolk increased 15.6 percent to more than 4 million tons with substantial increases in bulk cargo, such as grain and coal, and general cargo including automobiles, machinery and textiles.

Heilig-Meyer Co., a home furnishing chain based in Richmond, filed statement with the Securities Exchange Commission for the public offering of 850,000 shares of common stock. The proceeds will be used to reduce short-term debt incurred during the acqusition of Sterchi Bros. Stores Inc.

Heilig-Meyer also announced that William DeRusha was elected chairman of the board of directors and chief executive officer; Troy A. Peery Jr. was elected president and chief financial officer and Ralph H. Beam was elected senior vice president of operations of the western division. Beam previously served as president and chief executive officer of Sterchi Bros. Stores. Heilig-Meyer now operates 214 home furnishing stores in 10 states.

Capital Cigar & Tobacco Co. Inc., a cigar and candy wholesale distributor in Greenbelt, acquired Whitehead Wholesale Inc., a wholesale distributor of grocery items based in Ashland, Va. The terms of the acquisition were not disclosed.

The management of both organizations will remain intact and pricing and service will stay consistent, said spokesmen form both companies. The acquisition will result in an increased product line and expanded distribution network for both companies.

Hagler, Bailly & Co., a subsidiary of RCG International, received a $9.1 million contract from the United States Agency for International Development/Pakistan to develop and implement a national energy conservation program. Hagler, Bailly will concentrate its conservation program in planning, database management, technical support, training and curriculum development and investment promotion.

BDM International Inc. received a $2.1 million contract from the U.S. Department of Energy to test and evaluate a concept for recovering natural gas deposits in the Appalachian Basin. BDM will design an integrated system that can drill vertically and then gradually deviate along a specific compass to a horizontal altitude.

Elliott Machine Corp., a manufacturing company in Baltimore, has formed a subsidiary, Elliott Engineering Inc., to provide engineering and drafting services to customers. Peter A. Bowe is president of EEI. Alan E. Morse is general manager.

United Software Security Inc. signed a site license deal with the Navy Ships Parts Control Center in Mechanicsburg, Pa., for use of the PC backup software, TakeTwo (TM). The contract will make USS products available to federal employes through the GSA schedule.

Westchester Mortgage Co., a Rockville mortgage company, will merge with Hallmark Mortgage Corp. of Nashua, N. H. The new organization will be Westmark Mortgage Corp., a subsidiary of First Service Bank for Savings in Massachusetts