The feds, if you believe the gospel according to Alabama Gov. George C. Wallace, have always been the big bad wolf. Now they're becoming the big bad wolf with teeth.

In recent months, U.S. bureaucrats have found a strange new weapon that is causing local and state bureaucrats to change the way they do things - sometimes with stunning speed.

The strange new weapon is called the fund cutoff.

It's been around for a long time, gathering cobwebs. But - prodded by Congress, civil rights suits and a new regime trying to reverse past administrations' policies - federal officials are actually telling states and localities they will lose federal funds unless they abide by federal law.

Item: Jacksonville, Fla., Mayor Hans Tanzler said on March 17 that the idea of having a lot of women on the police and fire forces was "so idiotic, so ridiculous, so unrealistic . . . it's not only going to happen; there's no way it can happen."

Five days later the city council passed one of the toughest affirmative action ordinances in the country, and the city is aggressively recruiting women and blacks for the jobs.

Why? Because the federal Office of Revenue Sharing threatened to cut off Jacksonville's $2.3 million in quarterly revenue sharing payments unless the city complied with federal antidiscrimination laws.

Item: In Wauwatosa, Wis., a suburb of Milwaukee, a developer proposed an ambitious a plan for subsidized housing for the elderly and low-income families. The townspeople exploded and the City Plan Commission sat on the project for months.

On Oct. 27 the area director for the federal Housing and Urban Development Department warned not only of a cutoff of current community development funds, but of a denial of $955,000 for the coming year.

On Nov. 7 the City Plan Commission approved the developer's proposal and Mayor James A. Benz said last week he expects the Wauwatosa Common Council to give final approval. "It's hard for us to ignore a million dollars," he conceded.

Wauwatosa's torunaround was remarkable similar to that of the Fairfax County, Va., surpervisors, who in a period of one week last month rescinded their disapproval of a 100-unit subsidized housing project on Rolling Road because HYD threatened to cut off $3.7 million in community development funds. The supervisors are expected to consider the issue again at their Jan. 9 meeting. If they still do not object, the Virginia Housing Development Authority says it will approve the project.

Item: In Claremont, N.C., Russell Shuford has been battling local officials for seven years, ever since his father was killed when his house burned down and the family didn't have enough water to fight it.

Things got worse three years ago when Claremont started taxing the Shufords of services, and Shuford indignantly refused to pay because he said he wasn't getting any services - such as a road, a waterline and a street light.

Shuford complained to the Office of Revenue Sharing here that the town of 900 was discriminating against him because he is black, and suddenly in July wheels started turning.

Faced with a cutoff of $25,000 in revenue sharing money, the townspeople raised $4,700 and Shuford now has a road, waterline and street light. He still wants a fire hydrant, but he said last week he will drop a lawsuit against Claremont if it will agree to keep up the services it now has provided. Mayor Carroll G. Sigmon said the town will.

Item: A new law went into effect this year saying that any community that gets $25,000 or more a year in revenue sharing money must be audited every three years.

That means books have to be kept according to generally accepted accounting principles, and federal auditors have found that they've been told they'll lose federal funds after 1979 unless they shape up their ledgers.

Six states "have taken positive steps toward making their books auditable," said T. Jack Gary, manager of the Office of Revenue Sharing's audit division.

The District of Columbia, whose books are generally accepted as a mass, asked the office for an exemption from its audit requirement. But Gary refused.

District Budget Director Comer S. Coppie, noting that the city has let contracts to two accounting firms to start improving Washington's financial management, said, "We've made a significant breakthrough and we'll go to the revenue sharing people in March and tell them what progress we're making."

Item: After years of trying to persuade the town of Folkton, Ga., to provide the same kind of water and sewer service to blacks that it does to whites, the Justice Department sued and won a consent decree last year.

Mayor Louie Passieu said the town has spent $150,000 on waterlines and a new tank and expects to start work this week to put $101,000 worth of waterline eisn the largely black Maynor Heights area of town.

John B. Adams, town attorney and president of the Folkston Chamber of Commerce, said of the town's $885,000 program to equalize water and sewer service, "We were planning to do it anyway."

Asked about the implied threat of a cutoff of $32,000 that the town gets annually from the Office of Revenue Sharing, he said, "Perhaps we're going into areas now that we would have gotten to later."

The feds' new grit is not confined to ORS or to HUD, which in the last two years has denied community development funds to 27 localities for failing to meet housing needs of poor people.

The Justice Department has threatened local and state police forces with cutoffs of Law Enforcement Assistance Administration funds. And the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, despite Secretary Joseph A. Califano Jr.'s misgivings about cutoffs, has warned 12 colleges and 37 school districts they will be ineligible for federal grants unless they pledge not to discriminate against women.

William L. Taylor of the Leadership Conference on Civil Right, which consists of 140 groups, says the new cutoff policy so far has touched "just a handful of communities, but it's having an effect and it's encouraging."

Several local and federal officials said they think community leaders are sometimes pleased that the feds are forcing them to do what they want to do anyway but find politically difficult.

Stephen A. Flis, town manager for the upper-middle-class Farmington, Conn., said the "because of past discrimination, we have a commitment to do more."

Faced with threatened cutoff of $190,000 in revenue-sharing money, Farmington is recruiting in four states to find minorities and women for its 96-member municipal work force. "In the next week or two we'll have a female and a black on our police force," Flis said.

Recognizing the political problems some cities have in housing the poor, HUD Secretary Patricia Roberts Harris recently told some West Coast mayors, "It's okay if you want to use us as the bad guys so long as that lets you do the right thing."

Local officials make clear they are not always happy with the way federal policy is enforced.

"They keep changing the rules," Folkston Mayor Passieu complained. "In 1965 we got a Farmers Home Administration loan to put in water and sewer lines, and they didn't make us put them in areas that didn't ask for them. Now we have to put them in whether people ask for them or not."

He added that with all the new federal rules to comply with, "we have to spend about 1 per cent of the grants on record-keeping."

Wauwatosa's Mayor Benz, who said he personally favors the subsidized housing proposal that has angered many city residents, charged that HUD are a director John E. Kane exacerbated the situation by voicing HUD's threats in a radio interview. "Some of our aldermen are saying. 'To hell with the federal government,'" Benz said.

And Jacksonville Mayor Tanzler argued that the Revenue Sharing Office's original proposal that the city's police and fire forces be 41 per cent female was excessive.

The city's plan, approved by ORS, now calls for police and fire department goals of 58.6 per cent white male, 18.7 per cent white female, 6-3 per cent black female, 14.8 per cent black male, and 1.6 per cent other minorities. The figures, said one local official, are based not on the general work force, which is 41 per cent female, but on estimates of the work force that is available for protective service jobs.

HUD's tougher enforcement policy stems partly from a lawsuit filed by the city of Hartford, Conn, to force the agency to specify how communities, especially white suburbs around cities with large black populations, should meet the housing needs not only of the poor and moderate-income people living in their borders but of those expected to reside there.

The policy also results from a new HUD rule issued this year saying, in effect, that localities receiving community development money must meet rental housing demands of the elderly and the poor in their areas even if it means building new units.

Livonia, Mich., a Detroit suburb that is nearly all white, had been getting HUD funds for years although it has fought new housing construction for the poor and has a low vacancy rate in existing apartments. But this year, armed with the new standards, HUD disapproved Livonia's application for $995,000. "We finally got' em," said one HUD official.

The Revenue Sharing Office's new vigor comes from a 1976 law that says any government receiving ORS funds cannot discriminate - period. The old law said merely that it could not discriminate in programs funded by the Revenue Sharing Office. The new law also sets time limits for ORS to review complaints and provides funds for 35 civil rights specialists to handle them (ORS used to have five specialists).

Another factor in ORS clout is the fact that a federal judge cut off nearly $114 million in revenue sharing funds for two years to Chicago because I - two years to Chicago because of discrimination in its police department. Chicago, which is now hiring many women and minorities for police work, finaly got the money back. But is lost up to $20 million in interest and legal fees.

The case made its mark on other communities. Now when the federal wolf huffs and puffs, they try to put their house in order.