"Dear Friend," begins the letter from D.C. Mayor Marian Barry to the politically privileged recipients of new, low-murdered District automobile license tags.

The letter takes a single sentence to shift from license tags to issues closer to Barry's heart -- a litany of his self-proclaimed achievements in office, some of which are colored with considerable interpretive license from Barry. All of this, mind you, Dear Friend, at your expense.

"We're trying to be as creative as we can," said Alan F. Grip, the mayor's press secretary, "to get the mayor's message to as many as we can -- and it doesn't cost us anything." Barry critics, however, are saying his messages are thinly disguised campaign leaflets launching his 1982 campaign that were composed and stuffed on city time and printed and mailed at city cost.

Nonetheless, the mayor's cordial note comes on the heels of another "special" Barry message to every "Dear Property Owner" in the city. It was stuffed -- again at public expense -- in each of the notices announcing this year's double-digit tax assessment increases. With every recent city worker pension check, moreover, has come a similar Barry-crafted greeting.

But the black-and-white reality according to Barry's letters is sometimes a touch grayer in fact.

"We discovered and exposed a deficit that had accumulated over the years," the Barry letter to low-numbered tag holders said. "Even though this administration did not create the deficit, we had a responsibility to begin to solve it."

Barry goes on to credit himself with balancing the budgets for fiscal years 1981 and 1982 "without major increases in taxes and fees."

As always in politics, there is another version of the truth, however.

One version is that the budget crisis was not "discovered and exposed" by the administration, but by the newspaper reports. And though Barry did not create the deficit, his own unbalanced budgets and financial borrowing to cover cash-flow shortages did add to it. For fiscal year 1980, for example, the city spent $105 million more than its proposed budget, said Barry's own financial adviser, Philip Dearborn.

Also, while the budgets for fiscal years 1981 and 1982 that he sent to the City Council are "technically balanced" -- meaning the numbers added up on paper -- Barry warned as recently as yesterday that the 1981 budget may not be balanced after all.

As for the 1982 budget, which is also balanced on paper and still pending before Congress before becoming effective in October, there is only $16.8 million allocated for pay increases for city workers, who begin collective bargaining this year. They could end up with a contract that calls for more money -- thus unbalancing the mayor's 1982 budget also.

The 1982 budget is based on revenue sources that Council member John Wilson (D-Ward 2), chairman of the Finance and Revenue Committee, considers questionable. There also is no guarantee that Congress will approve the city's $336 million budget request.

Besides telling his correspondents of his specific accomplishments in office, Barry also told of the personal trauma of his public decisions. In "A Special Message From Mayor Barry" that accomplished the recent property tax assessment notices, the mayor wrote: "I had to make a number of painful, agonizing, excruciating and in some instances unpopular decisions, but I had no other choice."

In closing, he added, "Yours for a better city. Sincerely, Marion S. Barry, Jr., Mayor."