The idea that the D.C. government work force is bloated has for years divided city officials and municipal experts into two unyielding camps: Those who denied it and those who believed it but couldn't prove it.

While the alleged employment excesses became a perplexing mystery, the bureaucracy grew to about one worker for every 13 residents -- more government workers per capita than any other city or state government, according to the most recent data available.

Now, the city appears to have turned a corner in the debate, all but assuring an extensive reexamination of the work force and the first significant effort in a decade to reduce the number of workers.

The impetus came recently from a preliminary report from the 45-member D.C. Commission on Budget and Financial Priorities, which recommended reducing the 48,000-member work force by 6,212 positions during the next five years, saving up to $196 million a year. Some of those positions are not currently filled.

In addition, the five Democratic mayoral candidates, who have decried waste and bloat in the government, have pledged to make the issue a top priority if elected. Many of the candidates have blamed the Barry administration for failing to conduct a comprehensive analysis of how city workers are deployed and whether they are all needed.

"It is a real indictment of the city when you don't know if the employees are needed or not," said D.C. Council member John Ray (D-At Large), a mayoral candidate. "It impinges on our credibility with Congress and with the citizens."

Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4), also a mayoral candidate, complained that the council for years has been unable to make difficult personnel decisions because of inaccurate or misleading figures on employment, programs and performance measures.

As the financially troubled District confronts a projected $90 million budget deficit this year, the size of the work force has become more important than ever to city officials.

The city spends $1.4 billion a year, or nearly half of its $3 billion operating budget, on salaries and benefits for workers.

In 1988, the last year for which figures are available, the city had more full-time workers per 10,000 population, 876.5, than any state or city -- including New York, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia and Detroit -- according to a U.S. Census Bureau report.

To justify so large a work force in a city whose population has declined from 624,000 to an estimated 604,000 in five years, city officials stress the unique nature of the District, which must function as a city, county and state.

"I say over and over, I cannot say that there is a bloat in the District government at this point," said City Administrator Carol B. Thompson. "We could probably move employees around better. But then you have to look at training and other things."

The budget commission, however, not only found some bloat but concluded that the District could substantially reduce its work force by reorganizing some agencies.

Of the 6,212 city positions targeted for elimination in the commission's preliminary report, 1,233 jobs were identified as excessive or unnecessary administrative posts. The remainder are jobs, including some in the police department and human service programs, that could be eliminated through reorganization.

"The bloat is across the board," said one commission member who asked not to be identified. "But it's not in the jobs involved in the delivery of services . . . . It's in the layers and layers of management."

Last year, the D.C. Committee on Public Education, a group of civic and corporate leaders, reached a similar conclusion when it recommended reducing the school system's administrative positions by 400 to save the city $8.5 million a year.

"Why we are unable to have music and art teachers in elementary schools is incomprehensible when you look at the excessive staff at the central level," said Terence C. Golden, chief financial officer for the Oliver Carr Co. and co-chairman of the public education committee.

Barry administration officials challenge those claiming bloat to differentiate between agenices top-heavy with administrators and personnel growth tied to public and congressional demands for more social and public safety programs.

A recent three-month review of city services by The Washington Post found that while some council members characterize the government as bloated, numerous agencies complained of serious staffing shortages.

Officials at six of the seven agencies studied in depth said they have fewer employees than they did several years ago, largely because of budgetary shortfalls.

Despite the growing interest in the city's work force, few city officials can say with certainty how large the work force is, the ratio of supervisors to workers, or how employees are deployed.

"To my great distress, we don't have a way of knowing how many people we have on our payroll," said Del. Walter E. Fauntroy (D-D.C.), a mayoral candidate. To get a handle on the work force, Fauntroy says he would need a $210 million computer system to track workers and the personnel budget.

Other mayoral candidates, including Democrats Sharon Pratt Dixon and Ray, say that, as mayor, they would immediately order audits and performance evaluations to get a handle on the work force.

Even the precise number of workers on the payroll is in dispute. Depending on whom one asks, the District employs 46,000 workers, 48,000 workers or 54,000 workers.

This spring, the city had 48,752 workers, according to Robert Pohlman, deputy mayor for finance. Different totals come about, he said, by mistakingly counting everyone who worked during a year but who may no longer be on the payroll or counting everyone who made contributions to the retirement system.

City Budget Director Richard C. Siegel concedes that much of his information on staffing excesses and shortages is anecdotal, with no analysis to back it up. Even so, the executive branch eliminated 1,300 unfilled positions from the fiscal 1990 budget.

"I'm not exactly sure how we got to that decision, but we eliminated positions in each agency," Siegel said.

To illustrate the difficulties in sorting out work-force issues, The Post recently asked the Department of Human Services, the largest city agency with a $1 billion annual budget, to provide the number of workers and vacancies within each of the department's three commissions.

At first, a department spokesman said it would be a matter of days before the information was available. Four weeks later, the department released the figures, showing that it employs 8,628 people.

As for vacancies, the issue is more complex. For example, although the Commission on Mental Health technically has no vacancies, it intends to hire 257 workers, according to department documents. To do this, officials must breach the budget, something the department has done frequently in recent years.

Overall, the department employs 255 more workers than it has funds for but 386 fewer workers than it is technically authorized to hire under the budget. Acting Director N. Anthony Calhoun explains those numbers by saying he is both over and under budget staffing levels, depending on which numbers are used.

"It makes it difficult for anyone looking at the numbers," said Calhoun.

Mayor Marion Barry has defended the size of the D.C. work force, arguing that no other city is obliged to offer so wide a range of services. Moreover, Barry said, staffing levels frequently are a function of political decisions reached by the D.C. Council, in adopting new programs, and by Congress, which retains ultimate authority over city spending.

For example, the District's recent move to hire hundreds of additional police officers was mandated by Congress out of concern about the city's drug crisis and high homicide rate.

"There is no connection between crime and police officers," Barry said. "It's politics."

The budget commission's preliminary report said the roughly 5,000-member police department could be reduced by 1,527 positions.

In the last decade, the number of D.C. employees funded by city revenue increased by 4,787 positions, according to Barry administration officials, who maintain that the city had little control over some of that growth.

In the process of expanding mental health programs and assuming the administration of St. Elizabeths Hospital from the federal government, the city added 3,500 employees. In part to cope with drug-related crime, the police department grew by 684 and the Department of Corrections added 359 since October 1988.

Overall personnel growth has had a substantial impact on the budget. From 1984 to 1989, city funds spent on personnel costs increased from $871.4 million to $1.4 billion.

Barry also argues that council members who view the work force as bloated have had all the information they needed to do their own analysis and find ways to reduce it.

The three council members running for mayor, Jarvis, Ray and Council Chairman David A. Clarke (D), reply that such analysis is an executive branch function and the council does not have the resources for such a study.

Clarke said that when the council has cut positions from the budget, the mayor "would go and hire the people anyway as temporary and term employees."

Dixon said she would begin the reduction process by eliminating 2,000 mid-level managers to save the city up to $100 million a year. "We have got to get rid of some of the fat that is draining us," she said.

Jarvis said she would conduct a performance audit to make the work force more accountable. She said she is convinced that too many people have been hired "for political reasons rather than merit."

Some candidates have complained that too often, the District has functioned as the employer of last resort, despite diminishing resources.

Barry, however, does not totally agree.

"The D.C. government is not the employer of last resort, except for young people," he said recently. "We only employ those people we need at this point, if I'm not mistaken."

BY FUNCTION AND STATE PER 10,000 POPULATION -- OCTOBER 1988

....................................Selected Functions.........

Jurisdiction....All..........Police...Firefighters..Corrections

.............Functions.....Officers............................

Alabama............509.5.......17.7.......9.6.......12.5

Alaska.............789.3.......20.7.......9.3.......23.7

Arizona............488.8.......19.7.......7.7.......24.9

Arkansas...........478.0.......15.0.......7.1.......11.0

California.........474.1.......19.7......10.4.......20.6

Colorado...........529.7.......19.5.......9.0.......14.5

Connecticut........484.1.......23.2......12.3.......13.5

Delaware...........545.6.......19.5.......3.1.......23.9

District of

Columbia...........876.5.......61.3......21.3.......59.1

Florida............470.6.......21.9......11.4.......25.0

Georgia............561.6.......20.2......10.7.......19.9

Hawaii.............516.6.......21.5......13.0.......14.2

Idaho..............506.7.......16.9.......6.1........9.5

Illinois...........448.5.......24.7......10.4.......13.7

Indiana............488.2.......16.7.......9.1.......12.2

Iowa...............560.2.......15.2.......5.7........9.2

Kansas.............582.1.......18.7.......9.1.......15.2

Kentucky...........463.9.......14.4.......6.5.......12.4

Louisiana..........525.6.......21.2.......9.0.......18.0

Maine..............501.8.......17.7.......8.9.......12.0

Maryland...........508.2.......24.4......11.6.......24.4

Massachusetts......501.2.......26.2......20.8.......12.6

Michigan...........485.1.......20.1.......7.1.......17.3

Minnesota..........482.7.......15.1.......4.8.......10.2

Mississippi........551.2.......15.3.......7.9.......10.7

Missouri...........450.9.......18.9.......8.6.......14.6

Montana............539.5.......15.9.......5.2.......12.6

Nebraska...........593.4.......16.8.......6.6.......13.8

Nevada.............497.5.......31.8......13.1.......21.1

New Hampshire......440.9.......20.0......11.6........9.8

New Jersey.........515.8.......30.0.......9.1.......21.1

New Mexico.........609.9.......19.6.......7.5.......21.9

New York...........634.3.......31.4......10.7.......29.1

North Carolina.....512.5.......19.5.......7.0.......17.2

North Dakota.......539.1.......14.9.......4.1........7.2

Ohio...............462.3.......17.5.......9.5.......12.4

Oklahoma...........532.6.......19.5......10.2.......14.3

Oregon.............521.7.......16.7......11.0.......15.1

Pennsylvania.......395.1.......18.5.......4.8.......12.3

Rhode Island.......465.2.......22.1......18.9.......12.0

South Carolina.....533.5.......19.0.......6.4.......22.1

South Dakota.......503.7.......15.1.......4.9.......10.0

Tennessee..........494.0.......18.3......10.0.......17.3

Texas..............516.3.......19.3.......9.6.......18.1

Utah...............484.7.......15.5.......6.5.......10.6

Vermont............531.4.......15.7.......4.4.......10.4

Virginia...........520.5.......18.2.......9.7.......22.5

Washington.........512.2.......15.5......10.7.......16.9

West Virginia......504.1.......12.9.......4.5........7.1

Wisconsin..........491.4.......20.9.......8.5.......10.8

Wyoming............740.7.......24.3.......6.6.......15.3

U.S. Total.........504.6.......20.8.......9.5.......17.7

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census.