Competitive grants -- state and federal dollars that juridictions compete for to fund unique or one-time programs--used to be abundant. While there is still money around for local governments with the staff and savvy to find it, the last two years of budget cuts has put the squeeze on smaller jurisdictions.

In Northern Virginia, only Arlington and Fairfax counties and the City of Alexandria have managed to retain a heavy influx of special competitive grants to supplement county, federal and state entitlement funds. The rural counties of Loudoun and Prince William, as well as the cities of Fairfax, Falls Church, Manassas and Manassas Park, have found it tougher recently to compete for grants.

For example, the Fairfax County school system alone has won $3.8 million in federal and state competitive grants in fiscal 1983. It expects to get $371,000 more before the year ends in July. That is in addition to more than $1.5 million in funds for various social and environmental programs the county won this year.

In contrast, Manassas Park reports just one grant, a $69,732 federal grant for a criminal justice program to keep potential dropouts in high school.

"Anything that is available on a competitive basis, we compete for," said Bernard J. Cameron, coordinator for project development in the Fairfax County schools' office of governmental, business and industrial relations. "As long as it is consistent with our school programs."

It is difficult to compare grand totals in grant dollars for each jurisdiction because some programs are entitlement programs in one county and not in another and because other programs, such as refugee assistance, go to jurisdictions with special needs.

What is clear, however, is that Arlington and Fairfax counties and Alexandria have won millions of dollars in special grants, many for obscure programs.

Alexandria got $20,000 from the Environmental Protection Agency to develop local strategies for improving air quality and $39,500 to detect fraud in the city welfare programs. Arlington County got $19,000 to hire an Asian-languages specialist for its park department.

"The advantage to the county is that when the feds have the money they are going to spend it somewhere, and as a general rule it is better to get it back to Fairfax County where it can do some good than send it to Dayton, Ohio," Fairfax County Supervisor Thomas M. Davis III (R-Mason) said.

But Fairfax City Mayor John Russell disagrees. "We have a sort of different philosophy. Just because it's there doesn't mean we should go after the pork barrel. Our efforts are very small," he said.

Fairfax City spokesman Thomas Welle said the city did not receive any competitive grants this fiscal year but added the city contracts for many special services, such as schools and mental health programs, through Fairfax County, thereby taking advantage of its neighbor's competitive success.

It takes a large and sophisticated staff to keep track of changes in federal and state programs, Welle said, and small communities just don't have the resources. Fairfax County's Cameron said he calls on the expertise of all school specialists when applying for grants because they are the people who know best how to compete for extra dollars.

But there are problems for the jurisdictions that accept special grants, and local politicians often are wary of the strings occasionally attached to federal dollars.

"The disadvantages are that when the federal government gives up a program, people in the county yell to have the county pick it up," Fairfax's Davis said. "In general, these programs do not survive unless they are unusually good. But it's a problem because it's difficult to say no once a constituency has been created."

Loudoun County, which won $567,100 in competitive grants this year, has found it advantageous to work with other jurisdictions in the region. In some program areas, such as those controlled by the local community services boards, the administrators have begun to work together regionally to increase their advantage in competing for state money.

"Rural counties, like Loudoun and Prince William, might not have the critical mass of need necessary to put together a whole program in something like substance abuse, but by working with a larger neighbor, like Fairfax County, they can enhance their chances of getting funding," said Anne Drissel, executive director of the Arlington Community Services Board.

"This year, all three local community services boards applied as one to the state because we found none of us could plan in isolation."

Prince William, a county fast becoming a community of commuters, has specialized in getting grant money for commuter services. The county got $49,000 from the state to help finance vans for ride-sharing clubs; $52,000 for a mass transit study by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments on building a county transit system; and $1.4 million in federal money passed through the state to buy, refurbish and lease buses to private operators.