The department heads and their underlings gathered outside the meeting room of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors well before the meeting began, smoking, talking - some nervously - waiting for the supervisors to bring the meeting to order.

They were prepared for anything, but most of all they were prepared for grilling by the nine supervisors who called the meeting to comb through the county's proposed budget for next year of more than half a billion dollars.

This year, as every year, the supervisors picked through the $585 million budget, looking for items that could be cut to trim the size of the corporation-sized financial statement.

And this year, as in some years past, the staff listed the less-than-essentialite that could be cut - from a home-owned refuse disposal site to 10 new computer terminals for the Division of Inspections.

The items on the "cut list", as it is called, are not recommended by County Executive Leonard L. Whorton's staff, but only offered in response to the supervisors' request. This places county personnel in the uncomfortable position of having to justify why each of the items should stay in the budget when the supervisors approve it on Monday.

The laughing and talking gradually stopped and cigarettes were put out when the electric buzzer that signals the start of board meetings rang out through the hall. Staff members filed in to the broad, low-ceilinged room and took their seats. From the supervisor's semi-circular meeting table, situated several feet above the rest of the assembly, the questioning began.

Some county staffers call the detailed grilling process "pinging," a Navy term that derives from the pinging noise made when sound waves are reflected from a submarine or other object underwater.

"Actually the term would be more analogous to torpedoing when it comes to the budget work sessions," remarked a county observer, who noted that the supervisors' detailed questioning probably results from a lack of control they feel over the staff-developed budget.

"They're not pinging too bad this year," said one county staffer midway through Tuesday's budget workshop, the second one held last week. Another session will be held next Monday before the budget is approved. "I've seen them nitpick some guy on one detail for an hour and then pass over some $2 million project in two minutes."

Fairfax County financial director James P. McDonald, who is responsible for clarifying the supervisors' questions on expenses, has been through the annual budget workshop ritual six years now.

His experience notwithstanding, he remarked in a lighthearted vein before the workshop, "I think I feel how a surgeon must feel before going into heart surgery."

As a result of the budget's magnitude, most of the supervisors focused on issues pertinent to their particular districts or their own pet peeves. Less costly but more emotionally charged items often earned the most attention.

For example, Supervisor John P. Shacochis (R-Dranesville), a former management engineer for the Bereau of Naval Personnel, spent about 10 minutes of the two-and-a-half-hour workshop arguing with Animal Control Director Richard F. Amity about his needs for a secretary rather than a clerk-typist that Shacochis maintained could do the job just as well and cost less.

Shacochis also complained that the county classifies too many administrators as "management analysts."

"If we're talking about a bunch of 'go-fers' then let's get them classified right," Shacohis growled in response to Whorton's explanation that the title eliminates the need for several different job classifications.

Supervisor Warren I. Cikins (D-Mount Vernon) made repeated references to the immediate need for a new governmental center for Mount Vernon district, explaining that the police substation located there, "can't even close their back door all the way."

Another supervisor quipped that the police don't need to shut their doors.

Supervisor Martha Pennino (D-Centreville) wanted to know why more police officers are stationed at the Chantilly police station than Reston, and Alan I. Magazine (D-Mason) questioned a proposed increase in county trash collection rates so soon after curbside service has been halted.

In contrast to the board's regularly schelduled meetings that are run by tightly packed agendas leaving little time for extraneous discussion, almost anything is fair game in a budget workshop.

Among other budget details the supervisors tackled last wek were: the nature and use of desktop organizers for which the county proposes spending $79, the need for 481 protective vests for policemen on patrol, the need for two more property assessors in the county assessment office and whether the county should purchase 13 new mobile radios for county dump trucks on construction and maintenance jobs.

The supervisors also brought up some "sacred cows," as they term particularly sensitive issues. They warily discussed eliminating the homeowner refuse disposal site at the county's I-66 sanitary landfill, which the staff estimated would save the county $337,367.

"Couldn't you (staff) have chosen a less politically sensitive issue?," asked Cikins, referring to the certain opposition removal of the disposal site would create.

In their deliberations, the supervisors did not ignore questions of larger magnitude. They sought documentation from staff to counter allegations that the percentage of dollars going to social services in the proposed budget had declined while dollars had increased in other areas.

They questioned fire and police chiefs on the need of more men in addition to the 59 new firemen and 32 more police already budgeted to meet the demands of growth. And they further entertained the possibility of a real estate tax cut.

Supervisor Joseph Alexander (D-Lee) calculated that if the board made a $5 million cut to the school budget, and added $4.1 million in a public works emergency fund and a recently-adjusted year-end balance of $4 million "we would have about $13 million to think about using for a tax cut."

The $13 million translates to an 11-cent reduction in the current rate of $1.74 for each $100 of assessed value.

"I'm not saying we should use all of that," Alexander said, "But I just want to leave the board with the thought that there certainty is room toconsider a cut when we come back to approve the budget."