In what often seemed an incongruous mix of New England town meeting, political convention and Ted Mack's Amateur Hour, the Arlington County Board began its annual month-long budget review last week.

The $150.5-million budget, which is 6 percent higher than this year's, is scheduled to be adopted by the board May 13. It covers the year beginning July 1.

As proposed by County Manager W. Vernon Ford, the budget recommends a 7 percent pay raise for the county's 2,500 employes, maintaining real estate taxes at existing rates and increasing the water-sewer rate by 20 percent.

Before the budget is adopted, the County Board holds a series of tedious work sessions. The first of these - a 90-minute discussion of pay raises for county employes - began promptly at 7:30 last Friday morning.

Although that meeting attracted only a handful of rather bleary-eyed county employes, most of them uniformed firefighters, the first of the two evening public hearings drew about 500 residents who spoke on subjects ranging from the benefits of rugby to the need for higher taxes.

The first budget hearing - the kickoff event - was held in the bleak, cement-floored auditorium of Kenmore Junior High School. The five members of the board sat on the stage, high above the audience, at a long table covered with a white cloth, looking vaguely uncomfortable, like guests of honor at a testimonial dinner. Residents wandered in and out of the cavernous auditorium, to speak, listen to testimony, chat with friends and acquaintances and buttonhole county staff members on particular issues.

At least four of the six candidates runniong for the county board seat to be vacated by Joseph S. Wholey in December used the occasion to be seen, shake hands and meet prospective voters. "Oh I'm just here to observe and learn," said Stephen Detwiler, one of two announced candidates for the Republican endorsement, who was clad in powder-blue polyester slacks and a light-colored sports shirt.

Bilingual education was the only controversial school budget item at the hearings. On both nights, large groups of parents and supporters, many of them Hispanic, showed up wearing tags that identified them as advocates of bilingual education, a $56,000 program.

In the past few years, as school enrollment has steadily declined, the number of non-English speaking students in Arlington schools has risen dramatically. Students whose native language is not English account for nearly one quarter of the school population. Most speak English, Vietnamese or Korean.

Those in favor of bilingual education told the board that it provides students with a valuable link to another language, broadens the cultural horizons of American children and eases the adjustment problems of new immigrants.

However, one parent, Justine Mahoney, disagreed. Children should learn English "if they want to make it in a white man's world," said Mahoney whose statement was greeted with a loud collective gasp and booing.

Mahoney continued, apparently undaunted, citing the cultural and political divisions in Canada as proof that a bilingual society does not work. "English is the international language. It's the old American tradition: If these kids are going to make it in this world, they're going to have to learn to speak English."

At one point, after more than 15 parents had testified in favor of bilingual education, Board Member Walter L. Frankland Jr. spoke up. "I question the need for bilingual education. I spent five years in France," said Frankland, who noted that his son learned French by being sent to a French school "where they didn't teach American."

Late in the first hearing, after most people had left and while one man spoke earnestly about schools, the heavy auditorium doors swung open. Thirty men, some wearing black bowler hats, filed in with military precision and sat in three middle rows of the largely empty room.

They say silently for several minutes impassive and seemingly unaware of the quizzical looks they were getting from the rest of the audience, until a member of their group, Randall Cook, was called to speak.

Cook strode to the microphone and said, "Rather than read a statement, we're going to sing you a song in support of the performing arts budget." With that the Arlingtones, a barbershop chorus, stood up and sang a spirited medley. Their presentation was greeted with enthusiastic applause by all factions of the audience and the politically divergent board. "That's the best budget presentation I've heard in eight years," quipped Wholey.

As is the case every year, much of the testimony at the hearings revolved around the amount of money that should be allocated to Arlington's school system. In a practice that has become ritualistic, the County Board gave the School Board a budget guideline and the School Board submitted a higher budget.

This year the guideline was $36.2 million, and the School Board submitted a budget of $38.1 million. As in the past, that excess will probably be whittled down before the budget is adopted next month.

Two basic school factions were represented at the budget hearings: One side advocated raising Arlington's real estate taxes to give the schools more money, while the other group said taxes are already too high and schools are sufficiently funded.

"Arlington should have a school system second to none," said Halvor Ekern, "but maybe we've gotten to the point where we think we can throw money at the problem." Ekern noted that Arlington, which has one of the highest per pupil expenditures in the state, has budgeted $2,700 per student next year "which is more than some private colleges cost."

A former Arlington County teacher urged the board to give the schools more money. "It pays you to support the education of other peoples' children. The good ones will solve your problems. The bad ones will be your problems and add to your tax dollars."

Included in the proposed budget is a $2.1 million expenditure that would pay for a 7 percent across-the-board cost-of-living increase for county employes who last year received raises ranging from 2 to 5 percent.

Despite County Manager Ford's recommendation, several board members, led by the fiscally conservative Wholey have said they thought 7 percent was too high. Wholey, who wields considerable influence in shaping the budget, has said he favors a total salary and benefits increase of 5 percent.

"If you're not satisfied with the money you're making you have to go out and get another job," said Board Member Frankland at Friday's early morning work session. "Why should the county government be responsible for a cost-of-living increase? It's not our fault the cost has risen."

"Five percent is too low," said Vice Chairman Ellen M. Bozman. "I think we need to go to 7 percent."

"If (Arlington's) turnover rate is tiny, which it is," said Wholey, "then it signals that the pay raises have adequate."

"That signals to me that pay is too high." interjected Frankland.

"You're saying that since (county employes) are qualified people then 'screw'em,'" said Bozman angrily.

Frankland protested that he didn't mean that.

The meeting adjourned with an informal consensus among Wholey, Frankland and Board Member Dorothy T. Grotos to support a 5 percent increase.