HAVING stacked the upper levels of his bureaucracy at a heavy cost to District taxpayers over the years, Mayor Barry is now trying to sock the rank-and-file local government workers by shorting them four days' pay -- no questions asked. But there is a question to be asked, and it concerns the high cost of his bureaucracy. There is no question that the city is seriously short of cash and that the hard times are not all Mr. Barry's doings. Other cities, too, are squeezed by slowdowns in revenue collections and higher costs of services to a heavy concentration of poor and older people. But docking the pay of 21,000 workers to make up about $4 million of a budget deficit now projected to be about $95 million is a rough patchwork way to grub dollars. It undercuts morale without getting at the roots of the problem.

The city's precarious financial state demands major surgery. This should involve not just changes flowing from attrition, reassignment and retraining but also a careful review of all temporary or contracted employees to determine how many could be dropped from the payrolls. In some instances, the hiring of employees on a term basis or for seasonal work or special projects makes sense. But over the years, this has been abused as a way to hire more people without seeming to increase the payroll. While this is primarily the responsibility of the mayor, the council, too, should be identifying bloated agencies as well as those that are genuinely understaffed.

With few exceptions, however, the council members haven't done their part. They have been pleased to reduce property tax rates and to try to halt the furloughs, but when there's talk of serious cuts in spending, they suddenly become hard to find. John Wilson, chairman of the council's committee on finance and revenue, has in the past suggested positions that could be eliminated; he has spoken against consideration of any tax request unless the Barry administration can prove it actually is cutting agencies' spending. Merely sending people home without pay won't do it.