Howard County police officers, whose contract negotiations with the county have been stalled for the past month, will vote today on whether to accept a 4.5 percent cost-of-living raise they have rejected twice.

The vote comes at a time when some officers contend that morale is slumping, triggered in part by the police department's preoccupation in recent months with the administrative details of trying to attain national accreditation.

The 209-member Howard County Police Officers Association will be voting on a proposal, reworked slightly in telephone negotiations between representatives of both sides last week, that the union's bargaining committee is supporting for the first time.

The police officers association contends that the force is losing officers to nearby counties where the pay is higher, a claim that Police Chief Frederick W. Chaney disputes.

"Obviously, Howard County is a very good place to work. And it's proven by the number of applicants we've gotten," he said. When the department advertised for experienced, certified officers from elsewhere in the state, more than 30 applied, he said.

While union negotiators have recommended against acceptance of the 4.5 percent cost-of-living raise in the past, the officers association now is only three days away from the expiration of its current agreement with the county.

The county has agreed to increase some in-grade pay scales for officers, redistributing money already in the package under negotiation, said Dale Hill, president of the association, which represents about three-fourths of the police force.

But take-home pay for some officers would decline, because they will be contributing 7.7 percent of their salaries to a new pension system, Hill said. The county will be contributing 14.2 percent of the officer payroll to the pension system, for an annual cost of more than $1 million, said Janet Haddad, personnel administrator for the county.

Under the proposed contract, the starting salary for officers, now $22,900, would go to more than $24,000, with further increases after 18 months. The county also is proposing to reinstate the rank of private first-class, which was abolished in 1980, with additional in-grade pay increases.

Starting scale in Prince George's County will be $25,658 as of Monday, Hill said, while Montgomery's 1989 starting salary was $23,924.

Police salaries top out after 18 years at more than $40,000 in those counties, Hill said. Howard's current contract calls for a top officer salary of $33,119 after seven years' experience, with 2.5 percent increases at 12 years' and 16 years' experience, he said.

"We have just said that we wanted to be comparable to larger counties like Prince George's and Montgomery," whose living costs are more like Howard's than counties in the Baltimore region, Hill said.

At a recent public hearing held by the national Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies, Hill said the impasse negotiators had reached after six months of bargaining was due in part to resistance to change.

"Things have moved far too quickly" for many officers, he said, with new written policies being issued rapidly and without the required union input.

Officers interviewed recently said that, for example, the department had installed a new computerized dispatching system to meet accreditation standards, a system of giving priority to calls that officers are not allowed to challenge.

During some early morning shifts, that system can sometimes leave the western third of the county with only one patrol car, officers said.

They said that threatens the safety of officers left alone without backup, citing the killing of Maryland State Trooper Theodore Wolf, who was shot in March while making an unassisted traffic stop.

Chaney said drafts of the new general orders are posted on bulletin boards for comment, with "ample notice" before they become official. There has been little feedback from members of the force about the changes, he said.

He said that the computerized dispatching system is "working well" and that new beats have been established in four sectors.