In a unanimous vote, the Montgomery County Council yesterday challenged County Executive Charles Gilchrist's cost-cutting budget by insisting that an additional $10 million be considered for debt payments, schools, a contingency fund and services that Gilchrist wants to trim.

Gilchrist had proposed holding the property tax steady (though higher assessments still would mean bigger bills for most homeowners). Yesterday's vote suggests that opposition to cuts in the Council could seriously complicate Gilchrist's plans.

The council's action was the opening exchange in what will be a month-long process of hearings, deliberation and late-evening votes on Gilchrist's $724 million proposed budget.

The council yesterday established $2.42 per $100 of assessed value -- not Gilchrist's $2.30 -- as the working figure to be used in public hearings on the budget. That rate represents what the council thinks would be needed to cover spending proposals submitted by the county agencies that it funds.

That vote does not mean the council wants to set the tax rate at that figure, but merely that it has serious questions about Gilchrist's budget and feels his tax rate is unsuitable for use in deliberations.

Specifically, the council wanted consideration of $3.6 million more for the school system -- Gilchrist proposed lopping that sum off of the school board's requests; $700,000 more for Montgomery College and $800,000 more for debt service -- interest rates on new county bonds have been set 1 percentage point higher than Gilchrist had expected.

Council budget specialists also wanted $5.5 million more considered for bolstering the county's contingency fund to guard against loss of U.S. and state aid. The sum also would finance unspecified programs that Gilchrist wants to cut.

The 12-cent markup would cover all of these proposed additions to the budget.