A READER, Richard Hastings of Southwest Washington, calls to say that he has not gotten a water bill in three years.Once a year, Hastings calls the city water department and asks for his bill and once a year he is told that there is a problem getting them out and that, if he is only patient, a bill will arrive in the mail someday. Meanwhile, of course, taxes go up. The city needs the money.

A neighbor, a nice lady who has not said anything recently about what my dog has done to her yard, stops me on the street to ask about her water bill. She wants to know where it might be and whether, perchance, I myself have received one. The answers to those, questions are as follows: The water bill will be sent out someday and I have not received one yet, either.

It is a small thing, I know, this water bill business. By itself, it could not possibly close the gap between what the city spends and what it collects. We are, after all, talking about $172 million. But it is not a small thing when it comes to the public's perception of whether its tax money is being well spent. It is not unreasonable to say that a city that cannot collect the money it is already owed has a lot of nerve asking for more.

The city's failure to get control of its water billing reinforces the public view that not much has changed since Walter Washington left office and Marion Barry came in. In fact, lots has already changed and it was refreshing, for instance, to see Barry fire a high city official during the budget crisis -- actually hold someone responsible for the sorry state of the city's books. Justified or not, this firing was a novelty in Washington city government.

But the Barry administration is constantly shooting itself in the foot, kicking away chances to show Washingtonians that things really have changed. People are still talking about how the unpaid protocol officer turned out to have been paid. The budget crisis was denied for a long time, the mayor in one day insisting that the situation "is not a crisis yet" and then going on television the same day to say " the city is facing a financial crisis."

When it came to understanding how big the deficit was, it was anyone's guess. First there wasn't one, and then it was $29 million and then, okay, something more than that and then even more and more until we have the figure we have today. You will be forgiven for doubting it and for sensing that an attempt was made to keep you in the dark.

All these are small things, but they are the symbols the public -- and, yes, the press -- fasten onto -- the way citizens judge their government. In some cases, the judgements are uninformed and in some cases downright unfair. Barry was right when he said once that a black administration had to be better than a white one -- that it would be judged by different standards. Already, you hear talk about "these people" -- the "these" being, not bureaucrats, but black bureaucrats.

But it was Barry who defined these problems and who promised he would set about to correct them. His election was a mandate to make the city work, to bring a level to efficiency to a municipal bureaucracy that is seen as bloated and inept. If there was one thing Marion Barry was supposed to be able to do, it was to send out those water bills, even though it is clear that the $9 million involved would not erase the budget crisis.

But the city budget is an abstraction to most people. All they know about the city and how it works is how it works for them. For Richard Hastings, who asks for his water bill each year, the city works neither for him nor for the poor people whose services will be cut in the budget crunch -- in part because of the uncollected water fees. To my neighbor and thousands of others, the city's failure to collect for water usage is a symbol of waste and mismanagement. In terms of revenue, it's a drop in the bucket. In terms of public confidence, it's the whole bucket.