Montgomery County Executive Sidney Kramer and challenger Neal Potter sparred over taxes and county spending last night in one of their last face-offs before Tuesday's Democratic primary.

Kramer, who recent polls show has a narrow lead in his bid for reelection over County Council member Potter, made clear his opposition to any new taxes. He criticized Potter, a 20-year veteran on the council, for his support of taxes that Kramer characterized as "hidden" but paid by the public.

Potter said that if the county doesn't find new sources of money, its homeowners will be forced to pay more in property taxes or the county will see a cut in such services as schools. The real problem in Montgomery's fiscal situation is that development hasn't been forced to pay for itself, Potter said.

Potter, who favors a tax on development, a tax on employee parking spaces and a local gasoline tax, kept hitting the issue of growth in a two-hour candidates' forum before about 350 people at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda.

The forum, broadcast over WINX radio (1600 AM), also featured Republican candidate Albert Ceccone, who is unopposed in his party's primary and will face the winner of the Kramer-Potter contest in the Nov. 6 general election. Montgomery is heavily Democratic and the winner of the Democratic primary is considered to have a heavy advantage in November.

At times Kramer and Potter seemed to be allied as they disputed Ceccone's charges that all-Democratic rule has led to mismanagement in county government and rapid deterioration in the way of life.

But the Kramer-Potter matchup was clearly the feature of the evening, and each candidate, while not breaking new ground in the campaign, demonstrated some clear differences on the issues.

Kramer is opposed to any of the proposed amendments to the County Charter that would limit property taxes. He said Potter's support for a measure that would limit increases in the property tax to the rate of inflation would tie the hands of government. That measure is among several referendum proposals that will appear on Montgomery's Nov. 6 ballot.

Kramer said that in places that have such limits, such as Prince George's County and parts of California, there has been a cut in such services as schools, recreation and social programs. Kramer suggested it was hypocritical of Potter to support the amendment because he had supported increases in county spending while serving on the County Council. "Now suddenly Mr. Potter is saying, 'Save me from myself . . . . Keep me from spending so much,' " Kramer said.

Potter, stressing his background in economics, countered that he lives in "the real world" and that he knows government must come up with the money to pay the bill. He said Kramer's refusal to tax developers was part of the reason for increasing taxes that caused this year's taxpayers' revolt. He said that if the choice came down to having good schools or taxing developers, he would go with the schools.

The two men were cordial to each other in contrast to harsh words exchanged in recent days over a suggestion in a pro-Potter campaign brochure that Kramer has placed the interest of his family's commercial real estate enterprise above the public interest.

At the start of last night's forum, Potter suggested that Kramer's staunch opposition to a development tax might stem from the interests he has in real estate. Kramer was quick to take exception, saying if there had been such a conflict, Potter or Montgomery County State's Attorney Andrew L. Sonner, who authorized the campaign brochure, would have brought it to the public's attention.