Arlington County Manager Anton S. Gardner yesterday proposed a budget for the year beginning July 1 that would cut county programs and the number of employees, freeze employee salaries and require a new tax on restaurant meals and increased fees for telephones and other services.

The proposed budget of $416.4 million is a 0.3 percent increase from last year's $415 million spending plan and represents the smallest increase in more than 40 years, Gardner said. It reflects the decline in tax revenue and state aid that are results of the recession.

Gardner made no recommendation on the politically sensitive real estate tax rate of 76.5 cents per $100 of assessed value, but said that an increase is not likely when the board sets the rate March 16. Real estate assessments, which will be mailed to homeowners this week, are expected to rise about 3.3 percent, Gardner said.

If the tax rate is unchanged, the average homeowner's tax bill would increase by $14, one of the smallest increases in recent years.

Housing prices, which drive real estate assessments, increased by as much as a third a year in the 1980s but have almost leveled off with the recession.

Determining a budget for fiscal 1992, Gardner said, is "the beginning of a process of making many difficult choices. We will probably not maintain the growth and services we have felt necessary over the past couple of years."

Gardner proposed $21.9 million in cuts. The largest cut, $7.2 million, would be in long-term capital improvement spending. Projects ranging from playground enhancements to putting utility wires underground would be delayed indefinitely.

Gardner also recommended that county workers not be given a cost of living increase next year and that the county work force be cut by 24 positions, including three police and three firefighter slots.

Gardner said the cuts would be by attrition and no firings would be necessary.

Other proposals include a ceiling on housing and child-care subsidy programs, eliminating parts of the general relief program, eliminating the annual Fourth of July fireworks at Barcroft Park, cutting tree and flower bulb planting, closing libraries on Sunday evenings and eliminating underused Metrobus routes.

To increase revenue, Gardner recommended that the board impose a 4 percent meal tax, which he estimated would bring in an additional $8.8 million in 1992. Officials say most of the tax would be paid by nonresidents patronizing Arlington restaurants.

The tax can be imposed by a unanimous vote of the County Board. On Tuesday, the board will decide whether to hold a March 14 hearing on the item.

Arlington board Vice Chairman Ellen M. Bozman (I) said: "When we begin looking at the recommendations the manager has made, we are going to want to add some things back. I am not convinced that people in Arlington are going to want to give up as many services as the manager is considering."

The board will hold two hearings on the proposed budget in March, make whatever changes it wishes, then adopt a final budget April 27.

Although the proposed budget is virtually unchanged from last year, the rising costs of goods and services, previously approved step increases for county workers and increased demand for aid programs will take up a larger share of the spending.

In previous years, some funds were left unallocated, giving board members a choice of starting and expanding programs. This year, there are no such funds, meaning that the board must cut from one program to help another.

County revenue is estimated to grow by only 1.4 percent, less than the rate of inflation, projected next year at 4.3 percent. The state of Virginia, facing its own budget shortfall, is expected to cut its aid to Arlington by $12 million.

Although the federal government and the state can save money by cutting its aid to localities, "we don't have anywhere to turn," Gardner said.

He proposed several fee increases, including raising the water-sewer rate, imposing a new 25 cents per phone line surcharge to pay for improvements to the emergency 911 system and increasing ambulance fees for nonresidents.