A proposal before the Montgomery County Council that would give county employes up to $2,000 a year in tax-free day-care could make Montgomery one of the nation's first employers, private or public, to take advantage of a new federal tax regulation.

The proposed day-care payments, which would be exempt from taxation under the little-used "dependent care assistance program" of the Economic Recovery Tax Act of 1981, were hailed this week by women's groups, while national experts on employe benefits said the proposal marked a growing, albeit slow, trend among employers to tailor salary and benefits to a changing work force.

Some Montgomery County union representatives approached the legislation cautiously, however, questioning whether it could result in unfair trade-offs for county employes.

Under the legislation, introduced by Council Member David L. Scull, the county's 5,400 employes could choose day-care benefits in lieu of some other fringe benefit.

Although Scull did not include any details about how the proposal would be implemented, national experts predicted that to make this trade-off the county might have to substantially revise its now relatively standard fringe benefits package. This could have far-reaching consequences for all county employes, who eventually might have a variety of choices: for example, between more vacation days and better health coverage, or between more life insurance and more money to invest in a county savings plan.

"I like the whole idea that we are finally, as a society, beginning to look at the whole work place and how we can modify the benefits package to meet the changing needs of workers," said Judith Vaughan-Prather, executive director of the county's Commission for Women. An expectant mother, she said she would be extremely interested in trading off some of her current benefits for day-care expenses.

"Traditionally, all our ideas about a benefit package have been designed around the male breadwinner with a wife who does not work and two children at home," said Vaughan-Prather. "Just look at sick leave. For the most part, sick leave was designed to be accumulated for the man, who after working 20 to 30 years gets older and is more susceptible to things like heart attacks, . . . not for the young woman who might need massive amounts of sick leave early in her career when she becomes pregnant."

Typically, a county employe's benefits package--which includes health and life insurance, disability insurance, Social Security and pension, sick leave and annual leave--constitutes about 32 percent of the employe's base salary. The only variation among what employes receive in benefits is based on length of service and level of job. An employe also can pay extra for additional health coverage.

What Scull has suggested could revamp the way employes are offered these benefits. According to Scull, county employes could select various benefits to supplement a core package, with the total amount of benefits remaining the same as they receive now.

Because of the new change in the federal law, the county employe could then receive the day-care money without being taxed--probably a first, according to day-care expert Dana Friedman of the Center for Public Advocacy Research in New York. If day-care costs are more than the amount the county gives the employe, the additional costs still can be deducted from federal income tax returns under current tax regulations.

Businesses and county agencies have yet to opt to make payments under the Economic Recovery Tax Act, says Friedman, because final details of the regulations are still being worked out. Previously, Friedman said, employers were reluctant to include day-care in a fringe benefits package because it was not clear whether the payments would be considered nontaxable income.

"As a matter of public policy we owe it to county residents to take advantage of any tax changes that could make their lives easier," Scull said, adding that a recent study showed there was a critical lack of adequate day-care facilities in the county. Of the county's 30,000 children under the age of nine with working mothers, only 24 percent were in licensed day-care centers. The remaining children were being cared for by housekeepers, relatives or themselves.

"There are a lot of people in this county who need some form of day-care," said Scull. "It's expensive, and this would make it easier for county employes to pay for that service without costing the county a penny."

Some county union representatives remained skeptical of the proposal, however.

"I think Mr. Scull may just be stirring up the pot," said Jack Jardeleza, vice president of the Montgomery County Government Employees Organization. "I can't imagine a situation in which a county employe could give up $2,000 in benefits and still be adequately covered. I also wonder if, when the county comes down to putting a dollar figure on certain benefits, the employe will come out on the short end."

County council members, while welcoming the concept, also expressed caution over the proposal.

"We are all waiting to hear what the evidence is, for and against," said council president Neal Potter. "I think it's very nice to have fringe benefits responsive to people's needs, while on the other hand, I realize fringe benefits in the fields of health care and pension have been set up to provide against things that people forget and to keep them from having sad emergencies."

Without a specific plan, county planners say it is difficult to envisage how successful Scull's proposal might be, but a number of experts who have designed similar so-called cafeteria-style benefits packages suggested that proposal could be implemented in a number of ways, ranging from a major revision to a simple program involving only a few benefits.

The easiest trade-off suggested would involve allowing an employe to request a lower pay check, with compensation coming in the form of day-care payments instead. Thus, the employe would receive some tax-free dollars at no extra cost to the employer.

Some national experts even suggest that both employers and employes may come out ahead financially with this change: the employe because dollars that once were taxed would now be tax free, the employer because dollars that once required Social Security payments no longer would.

The more far-reaching proposals would involve a complete revision of the county's income-benefits package. According to Susan Koralik, a partner in the consulting firm of Hewitt Associates, which has designed most cafeteria-style benefits packages in the country, the county could reduce its basic pension outlay and core benefits package. The remaining money could then be offered to county employes as credits to be applied to other benefits. Thus, an employe whose working spouse has health insurance for the entire family could opt to take only minimal health insurance and more vacation days instead. Or an employe could take the money formerly invested for a pension and deposit it in a county-run savings plan.

According to Koralik, fewer than 20 companies nationwide and only one government body (Alaska) offer some sort of cafeteria-style benefits package. Locally, the Mariott Corporation offers a modest choice among its benefits to some employes and Fairfax County is considering offering its top employes some sort of choice in benefits.

"Companies are finally beginning to realize that the old standard benefits package just doesn't meet the needs of today's work force," said Koralik. "The typical worker is no longer a man with a wife who does not work and 2.3 children at home."

A public hearing on the bill has been set for 8 p.m. Wednesday, June 9, in the council chambers.