The District of Columbia lost nearly $200,000 in U.S. funds to aid the 4,000 Indochinese refugees here this fall because a city planning official failed to make a crucial phone call asking for the money in time.

The call by Douglas W. Gordon, the acting Department of Human Services policy and planning chief, would have permitted the federal Department of Health and Human Services to hold the funds beyond the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30 while waiting for the city to process and formally submit plans for the programs.

Because the phone call never was made, federal officials in the Region Three office of HHS in Philadelphia were forced to return the unspent funds -- all of it reserved for the District of Columbia -- to the U.S. treasury.

Gordon said the failure of the city to get the funds was not his fault.

"It's really crazy," said Mark Franken, an official with U.S. Catholic Charities, one of two volunteer relief agencies, which had worked with the city to set up the programs. "You hear about the District's funding problems, and then when they do have money available to them they aren't able to take advantage of it."

At the heart of the controversy are several programs designed to teach English to the refugees, a large number of them illiterate, while at the same time providing them with job counseling. Cahtolic Charities and the Indochinese Community Center in Washington had offered to set up the programs using federal funds that had been set aside for the city for just that purpose.

Officials for both agencies discussed their proposals with city officials, including Gordon, and received their approval shortly before the end of the fiscal year in September. To insure that HHS would consider the final proposals, which were not expected to be ready for submission to the agency until after the end of the fiscal year, Franken said he urged Gordon to call HHS officials and ask them to hold the $197,000 in unspent federal money that would be needed.

That call, according to William J. Neary, director of the office of refugee resettlement in Philadelphia, never was made.

"We were not aware [of the proposals] and we were not called [to reserve] the money," Neary said. "We did not want the District to lose that money."

Gordon, who insisted yesterday that U.S. officials were aware of the proposal, refused to say whether he telephoned them specifically to ask them to reserve the money.

"I may not have used [the] words, 'I want you to hold it [the money],'" Gordon said, ". . . but the region [HHS regional office] was aware of the meetings we had held."

As a result, such a phone call would not have been necessary, he said, because it should have been implicit that the city would want the money reserved.

In any event, Gordon said, he had cautioned the volunteer agency officials at the time that there was a possibility the city would not be able to take advantage of the federal funds because of its own budget cycle. He said that "city regulations" required that the proposals be formally approved by a number of city agencies and review boards by Sept. 30. It is unclear whether any agencies acted on the proposals.

Gladys W. Mack, assistant city administrator for budget and resource development, said yesterday no such regulations or requirements exist, however.

"There is no limitation on our receipt of federal funds," she said. "There is no regulation that they cannot be used if they are available. I see no reason why we couldn't have used it."

The failure to secure the funds has penalized the city doubly, relief officials said. As the result of congressional action, local jurisdictions are now entitled to receive only 75 percent of the federal funds they spent in the previous fiscal year, plus 25 percent more to cover increased costs caused by the arrival of new refugees. Any money that was not spent last year is gone. Just how much the city has lost because of the failure to claim the funds could not be determined yesterday.

At the same time, the mixup has cost the volunteer agencies valuable time in their efforts to aid the refugees.

"It could be March before we have anything set up, if everything goes perfectly," said Pat Swain of the Indochinese Community Center. "But they haven't even asked us yet to resubmit our proposals."