When Montgomery County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist last month handed down his barebones budget ceilings for his county department heads, with almost every agency being told to cut costs, he left it to people like David Robbins to hold the line.

Robbins is director of the county Department of Recreation, overseeing a $9-million budget and a staff of 116 full-time workers and 2,000 part-timers, and commanding a laundry list of programs, from jazzercise classes to photography workshops.

Earlier this year, Robbins submitted a trimmed-back $9.1-million operating budget for next year, barely enough to continue current programs. But that tight budget was sent back with orders to cut $58,000 more and to be prepared for a 2 percent cut if the county's current revenue gap is not closed.

"The percentage of increase we're allowed is 2.2 percent," Robbins said. "That's much less than the rate of inflation." If he had to prepare a contigency budget with 2 percent more in cuts, he said, "we would have some very serious problems."

As the crisp, winter cold settles in over Rockville, a crisis atmosphere has permeated many county departments and agencies as they grapple with reduced budgets, program cuts and potential layoffs.

But at the recreation department's headquarters in the old Round House theater off Randolph Road in Wheaton, there is a steady air of calm, despite the fact that the department is one of those hit hardest under this year's budget guidelines.

The department really began bracing for the cuts more than a year ago, when it launched a program of reorganization and automation. It has reduced its six area offices to four, saving administrative costs and staff that can be deployed elsewhere. Also, the department this year was allotted $130,000 for a new computer system, a one-time expense.

Under orders from Gilchrist, the department has increased fees for most programs, from volleyball franchises (up from $160 to $180) to exercise classes (from $55 to $60), so that users now bear practically all operating costs. About $4 million of the department's $9.1-million operating budget comes from fees; the rest comes from a 5.4-cent recreation tax on property for each $100 of assessed value.

"We're in a better position this year than in the past to accept this kind of a (below-inflation) increase," Robbins said.

Still, this year's optimism is tempered somewhat by clouds on the fiscal horizon and the realization that some of this year's savings, those resulting from increased fees and administrative reshuffling, may not be around for future years.

Fees already may be squeezed to the maximum level possible, recreation officials say, but expenses continue to escalate, particularly utility bills, debt service on capital projects and the cost of taking over some federally funded programs.

Timothy Firestine, the department's budget analyst in the Office of Management and Budget, estimated that utility costs for the recreation department, which maintains dozens of facilities across the county, will grow from $600,000 this year to $800,000 in fiscal year 1984. "It's electricity, it's water bills, it's water for the swimming pools," he said.

The department also has assumed a more socially oriented role in the county, taking on responsibility for, and the costs of, some programs previously administered through the Department of Family Resources. Among those are various seniorcitizen, therapeutic, counseling and youth-employment programs.

At the same time the department has assumed these new responsibilities, it has seen the loss of thousands of federal dollars because of budget cuts.

The department's Upper-County Community Center, off Emory Grove Road and Rte. 124, was supported by $76,000 in federal funds, which were cut last month. The department absorbed $30,000 of the cost this year. Next year, that will rise to $40,000.

It also lost $50,000 in federal money that was supporting the youth tutorial program at Scotland Community Center in Potomac.

The department also relied on some federal funds for its costly construction projects. This year's hold-the-line budget has prevented the agency from adding new projects to its capital budget, beyond completing projects previously approved.

Firestine warned that the department's debt service will grow substantially this year because of a number of previously approved projects under construction. Recreation is one of a few departments that pays its own interest on bonds.

Department officials also have used innovation and some budgetary slight-of-hand in squeezing more out of less.

The most common way to find extra money is to leave vacant positions unfilled indefinitely. During open gym hours at area high schools and Montgomery College, the department has begun charging a nominal dollar fee. The gym time previously was free.

The department also is making increased use of private contracting, with the agency acting more or less as a sponsor. For instance, with some costly aerobic dance classes, the department found private instructors with classroom space and offered them county government sponsorship rather than paying overhead and administrative costs.

In addition, the department has an allocated $500,000 -- scheduled to be reduced to $200,000 -- in surplus funds. The $58,000 ordered cut from the department's budget will come from that surplus.

But creative budgeting and fee increases may have reached the limit. Recreation officials already report a drop in some class attendance.

They are unsure whether the decline is due to higher enrollment fees or the economy in general, with people having less leisure time for recreation. Robbins said there can be no more dramatic fee increases in the immediate future.

But Robbins is optimistic. He is relying on an active and powerful constituency, as well as a county tradition of maintaining quality recreation, to prevent drastic budget cuts that have hit recreation departments in other jurisdictions.

"Nationally, recreation has tended to be a vulnerable public service," he said. "But in this county, it counts as a factor in the quality of life. In this county, people view leisure time and the quality of life as extremely important. After work, people play hard. I don't look at us as vulnerable, I look at us as having to react to the pressures of doing more with less."