For most Montgomery County department heads, the news came on Monday. County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist sent out memoranda ordering most agencies to draw up budgets for the next fiscal year, and to plan on receiving just 1 percent more in funds than they received this year.

Then came the bad news: those tight 1 percent budgets had to include cost-of-living increases.

And to top it off, Gilchrist wanted those budgets completed by next week.

So this week, when many office workers around the area were already beginning to indulge in Christmas party cheer, a hurried crisis atmosphere settled in over many county departments. Agency directors and budget employes gathered with charts and graphs in all-day meetings, deciding what gets cut and what survives in the new fiscal year beginning July 1.

"I have one advantage here since I had a vacant position," said Charles Maier, the county's information office director who was trying to decide how to cut $28,000 by Monday. "Most people don't have vacant positions, and that makes it much more grim. This being Christmas makes it doubly grim, since many department heads know they're going to have to let some people go."

"It's real tense," said Budget Director Jacqueline H. Rogers. "It's very difficult all around."

Department directors knew that fiscal '84 would be tough, especially since Gilchrist and the County Council agreed on budget ceilings two weeks ago that will hold the entire county budget down to $771 million--an increase of less than the projected 5 percent inflation rate. Gilchrist has said he will not raise property taxes as long as he can avoid it.

But until Monday's memos went around, none of the department heads knew exactly how much of the cuts the specific agencies would be expected to absorb.

In the memoranda, Gilchrist laid out three target levels for agencies: a 5 percent increase for a lucky few, a 3.96 percent increase for some others, and, for the vast majority, that 1 percent increase. Asked which agencies were told to plan for 1 percent, Rogers said, "practically everybody. It would be easier to tell you who didn't get 1 percent."

The figures sent out Monday were just guidelines, Rogers cautioned, and some agencies could actually end up getting more money.

The Police Department and the Office of Economic Development were given 5 percent targets. The council, state's attorney, public libraries, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Office of State Affairs (which lobbies in Annapolis) were allowed to grow by 3.96 percent.

For most other agencies, including the Fire Department, the Department of Social Services, the Department of Family Resources, and the Department of Housing and Community Development, the guideline was 1 percent.

"It's tough," said Family Resources Director Harvey R. McConnell. "We're trying to make cuts in administrative areas where we can. You ask if it's possible to do, and there isn't any other choice. In government, you get orders and you carry them out."

"It's going to take an awful lot of work," said William Davis, administrative services coordinator for the Department of Environmental Protection. "We'll be trying to find more effective ways to do things."

In one of his memos, to the libraries department, Gilchrist said that with his new budget, "we cannot maintain the status quo. Rather, we must readjust programs and services as thoughtfully as possible."

In that memo, Gilchrist makes the appeal: "We are all servants to the public . . . . I am depending on you to help carry the message to your staffs, your advisory groups, and your constituencies."