Montgomery County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist asked the County Council yesterday to stop giving cost-of-living increases to the county's 24 agency and department heads after a study found they earn higher salaries than those in similar positions in other jurisdictions.

The report, released yesterday, was prepared by an ad hoc committee formed by Gilchrist after complaints by council member Esther Gelman that Gilchrist was giving his department heads exorbitant salaries.

Gilchrist recommended replacing the 7.9 percent cost-of-living increase and the additional 2 percent annual salary raise with raises of an average 5 percent, based on performance. Gilchrist said the cuts would save the county $40,000 during the next fiscal year.

The council appears ready to go along with Gilchrist's proposal and department heads reached yesterday seemed resigned to getting lower pay raises.

"Peronally, I would like to get a cost-of-living increase," said Police Chief Bernard Crooke, "but I understand it's management's prerogative to review salaries."

Crooke said Gilchrist's plan to give raises based on merit could result in "a rude awakening for some of us. It'll be interesting to see how others view us."

Department of Finance Director Al Gault threw up his hands when asked about Gilchrist's plan to substitute merit raises for automatic cost-of-living increases. " What can I say?" Gault said "That's what he wants to do."

The report that resulted in Gilchrist's plan to substitute cost-of-living increases with merit raises said that salaries for department heads are higher in Montgomery than in the nearby suburbs.

The Montgomery County police chief earns $51,132, the report said, while the chief in Arlington County earns $38,692; in Fairfax, $49,808, and in Prince George's, $35,715.

The director of the Department of Finance in Montgomery earns $53,738 while the director in Arlington earns $36,855; in Fairfax, $45,247, and in Prince George's, $46,473.

The Montgomery health officer earns $57,383 compared to the Fairfax health officer who earns $54,835 and Arlington's, who earns $47,400.

The report stated that salaries of county department heads and agency heads also are higher in Montgomery than in city and county governments of comparable population elsewhere in the country. But, the report said, Montgomery County department heads' salaries "are not sufficient" to attract top federal officials into the county system.

The report was written by William Colman, a former County Council member; John J. Byrne, president of Government Employees Insurance Co. (GEICO), and Daisy B. Fields, a member of the Montgomery County Commission for Women.