In Prince George's County, government is fraying at the edges.

Fire trucks arrive undermanned at the scene of a blaze. Police cars are in use long after national standards would have them sold for scrap. A program to replace curbs once every 20 years has been stretched to once every 125 years.

Road maintenance trucks are rusting and falling apart--in one instance a metal road sign has been shoved under a driver's seat to cover a gaping hole in the floor through which a driver could drop to the ground.

Public schools, which have already eliminated as "frills" free driver education classes and free athletic events, are short on textbooks and, in some cases, writing paper. Elementary school desks are being made serviceable for older students by having state prison inmates weld a few inches of piping onto the desk legs.

These signs of government stretched thin have one major cause--amendment 817 to the Prince George's County charter, a voter initiative known as TRIM (for Tax Reform Initiative by Marylanders) that in 1978 brought the national antitax, antigovernment message to the Washington area.

Overwhelmingly approved in every precinct of Prince George's on election day five autumns ago, TRIM has put a permanent freeze, without room for inflation, on the amount of property tax the county can collect. Since then, TRIM, like California's Proposition 13, has been a source of constant debate in the suburban county along Washington's eastern border.

It has slowed, though not halted, the growth of government spending. In the process it has forced a reassessment of priorities and posed fundamental questions about how much local government should do for its citizens.

There is also a mounting human toll resulting from TRIM, with thousands of residents, particularly among the poor and elderly who are dependent on services of local government, and the many employes of the county, including about 500 teachers, who have lost their jobs.

Concerned residents, including some of TRIM's most vocal original backers, are now looking for ways of loosening the grip of the measure, even though voters last year refused even to permit the cap to be loosened enough to account for inflation or taxes generated by new construction.

On Friday, Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening named a blue-ribbon commission whose goal is to come up with a proposal that can be placed on the ballot next year.

Two Washington Post reporters, one who covered the county government when TRIM came into being, and one who covers it now, spent the last two months examining the effects of the anti-tax movement, which began in California and moved like a tidal wave across the country, with Michigan, Massachusetts and Florida adopting similar tax restraints. Only 104 of the nation's 3,014 counties have the home-rule power granted to Maryland's counties, however, and none adopted a tax-limitation as strict as Prince George's.

Among the findings to be detailed in this three-part series are that:

* Homeowners, for whom TRIM was supposedly designed, have not benefited as much as utility companies and owners of apartment buildings.

* The harsher effects of TRIM were postponed for a couple of years by making "invisible" cuts such as the maintenance of equipment and vehicles.

* Fees for services that once had been free, from housing inspections to child support collections and dozen of student activities in schools, have made up part of the difference.

There are some who say that the county, for better or worse, will never be the same.

"The general feeling in 1978 was that it wouldn't last, that if things ever got bad it wouldn't last," said Timothy F. Maloney, a state legislator first elected the night TRIM came to Prince George's. "But what is bad? That's the question being asked now."

Today, nearly five years after TRIM became law, there is much skepticism about it in governmental and political circles--much more so than among the populace at large, which in last November's election re-endorsed it by an huge margin.

Lawrence J. Hogan, the conservative tax-cutting Republican who was elected county executive the year TRIM was adopted, is gone, and his Democratic successor, Parris Glendening, is unabashedly against leaving the freeze in place as it is. County bureaucrats, who initially found that TRIM produced much-needed streamlining in a government that mushroomed in size during and after the Great Society era, now say harm is being done.

This change in political climate has made the participants in local government willing for the first time to speak frankly about the difficulties and often harsh effects of the tax-freeze. Attitude of Officials Changes

And the passage of time has led many elected officials to look back at their roles in the 1978 election and wish they had acted differently. As the county struggles with its budget, no longer able to count on the largesse of a once flush state government, local officials are looking at the future with increasing alarm.

In the next three days, several articles will examine the effects of the tax freeze on the county, the factors that helped put the restriction in place, and the prospects for the future.

Today the government of Prince George's, which once boasted that it was the fastest growing county in the U. S., is shrinking. While spending has increased each year under TRIM, in inflation-adjusted dollars the 1983 budget is $63 million less than 1979's.

But for the first two or three years, the fiscal health of Prince George's was not too different from the other jurisdictions in the area that were struggling to deal with high inflation and federal cutbacks.

Prince George's budgets were tighter, but its treasury filled with unexpected millions when the legislature rewrote and increased state formulas for police, transportation and education aid. And the county's school enrollment declined, allowing the board of education to close 21 schools by the end of 1980, saving as much as $10.5 million a year.

Hogan, who came to office with TRIM, sliced into the budget with vigor. Despite political battles with the Democratic council over other issues, both parties discovered that TRIM was a useful tool: It gave them the excuse to make cuts many privately favored anyway.

The county cut the tax rate to the lowest in 20 years, and property tax as a percentage of the county budget began to decline, after increasing for years.

"It helped give elected officials some backbone," said the current county executive Glendening, who previously served two terms on the council. "That's a poor reflection on elected officials, but there it is."

Public Works Director Vaughn Barkdoll, whom Hogan brought with him in 1979 to cut government, said: " Before TRIM we planted trees, we picked up bulky trash . . . . I think the county government was like Big Brother to the citizens and the employes, and that came to a screeching halt."

Initially, cuts and cost-saving innovations came easily. Boards and commission members, many of them appointed to repay political debts, lost their stipends. Agencies got rid of some high-paid, high-level jobs. They sought out cheaper labor, replacing full-time employes with volunteers or low-salaried part-timers who did not get sick leave, holiday pay or pensions.

Public Works used jail inmates to pick up roadside trash; libraries began charging fines for the first time; the schools turned supermarket milk crates into textbook racks, yoghurt barrels into storage bins for maps and old accountants' desks into computer tables.

There were also many cuts the public initially did not see, but would have a grave financial impact in the future. Maintenance and repair of buildings, vehicles and roads was deferred. Buildings began to look dirtier; fewer miles of roadway were resurfaced; trucks, police cars and snow plows started to fall apart.

Growing worries about the "infrastructure" aside, officials remember a general feeling of accomplishment in those first two years. The innovations were numerous enough that the Hogan administration produced an inch-thick paperback book of them, its green cover showing a fist crushing a dollar.

If 1980 and 1981 were years of stretching resources, finding innovative ways to be more efficient and unearthing less visible cuts, the 1982-83 budget year was a different story.

There was no more give. State aid slowed, federal money declined, the recession caused a drop in other sources of cash. The easy cuts and accounting maneuvers had been made. The TRIM years truly had arrived.

"When I got into the budget sessions in early 1982 , it was a very depressing experience to me," said Kenneth V. Duncan, who as chief administrative officer oversaw all TRIM budgets until he stepped down three months ago. "I'd have to say to all the department heads, 'I understand what your needs are but we just can't do it.' That was a very depressing thing for me . . . You didn't have the flexibility to do anything. All you could do was cut."

Since then the once-invisible cuts in maintenance have become pronounced. With no money budgeted in the past for major purchases, the stock of police cars, dump trucks and fire trucks is being used well past the time when other jurisdictions would have scrapped them.

One-third of the 892 police cars have logged more than 70,000 miles, the nationally accepted point at which the vehicle should be replaced. New cars are scheduled to be bought by next summer. The Fire Department has purchased only two new engines and one new ladder truck since TRIM, although the department has purchased new ambulances and other specialized vehicles.

Public works, which suffered greatly in the effort to make "invisible" cuts, is running low on usable vehicles. In some cases, the department, which manages snow removal, street cleaning, curb repairs and landfill operations, has had to repair trucks by cannibalizing others.

Last winter when the big blizzard hit, a quarter of the county's snow trucks were already broken, awaiting repair. And half of the remaining fleet broke down in the middle of the storm.

Without enough trucks to plow, the department spread salt. When that didn't melt the snow, workers spread cinders. After the ice melted, the cinders remained--because the last of the county's five street sweeper trucks broke down for good in 1980.

The "invisible" cuts that helped balance a budget in the short term have had unexpected long term costs: some of the equipment is now so old that the county is pouring funds into increasingly expensive repairs--when it can find replacement parts.

In a recent department inventory half the department's 61 dump trucks were so worn that they cost the county more money in repairs than it would have cost to replace them. Two-thirds of fleet had traveled well over 70,000 miles, the point at which the county had determined repair was no longer cost-effective.

Repairs to a 1975 International dump truck with 91,098 miles, for instance, had cost almost $50,000 over the years. The truck cost only $10,000 new, would cost $28,000 to replace with the same model and $41,000 for a more fuel efficient diesel version.

In the last year, too, some agencies have made staff cuts beyond what they felt they could absorb, department heads said.

Countywide, 3,062 positions have been eliminated since implementation of TRIM. Many of those reductions occurred through attrition in the first two or three years. But by last year the school system had to lay off 507 teachers, in part because their union refused to accept wage freezes. About 150 of the teachers have since been rehired.

Smaller libraries got rid of librarians and replaced them with clerks. The Licenses and Permits Department eliminated inspectors who check the accuracy of scales, taxi meters and gas pumps, leaving that function to more sporadic state review.

And in the public schools, dozens of classroom teachers, vice principals, music and reading specialists, guidance counselors, librarians and special education instructors were let go.

Among major departments, only police and fire escaped major staff cuts, in part because of a political decision by former executive Hogan.

Although they suffered no loss of personnel, those departments, like every other in county government, have felt the effects of TRIM when it comes to services.

In the Police Department, the number of sworn police officers grew by 10 percent, but the number of calls increased by nearly 20 percent. Much of that increase is in less serious crimes such as robberies and assaults.

At the same time, emergency response time rose from four minutes to six-and-a-half, according Police Chief John E. McHale Jr. Part of that increase may be caused by a recent broadening of what is considered an emergency.

Police have stopped writing up auto accidents, except in instances of serious injury, to concentrate on more important areas.

In the Fire Department, more than one out of 10 trucks responds to a fire without the number of firefighters required by departmental order and union contract. That figure has been as high as 20 percent for some fire-fighting squads.

Fire Chief Marion H. (Jim) Estepp said the department continues to provide fire services comparable to other counties, despite TRIM. But to open a much-needed ambulance rescue squad in Laurel, he agreed to allow shifts manned solely by volunteers instead of following department requirements for two paid, fulltime officers.

Estepp said that exception, which he said does not put anyone in jeopardy, was necessary because the county has only half as many units as federal standards recommend.

"I feel, based on my gut and what I can see approaching, that we are approaching the limits of what we can do," said Estepp, who has headed the department since 1975. "What we are spending is so low. Common sense tells you, you can't keep the system going on that forever."

Libraries offer fewer than a tenth of the 2,500 community programs of five years ago, having eliminated many film nights, story hours and lectures. Public Works has stopped replacing dead trees and cuts grass on median strips once or twice a year instead of three or four times. Building inspectors now operate on a "demand basis," responding only to complaints or specific requests.

In the Consumer Protection Commission, where complaints have risen, the number of investigators and helpers has been nearly halved. "It means you're up to your eyeballs in routine complaints," said Del. Albert R. Wynn, executive director of the commission through 1981. "We had to stop doing the smaller complaints, the under $25, in terms of taking them to hearings."

The Park and Planning Commission, technically exempt from the TRIM because it is funded by a special tax, has responded to the "spirit of TRIM" by closing its animal petting zoo, reducing its summer playgrounds program and leasing out two money-losing golf courses.

The planning department has become cost-conscious toward developers, discouraging them from putting up streetlights that add to the county's utility bill. In one case, to win zoning approval, a developer paid the county $13,000 to defray the cost of a county library. School System Hardest Hit

But the harshest impact has been on the 108,000-pupil school system, the 14th largest in the nation. The school budget annually makes up 60 percent of the total county budget, so when the time came for serious cuts, it took the biggest ones.

Last year, in the final Hogan administration budget, the schools were given fewer dollars in their budget than they had gotten the year before. The reduction in the school budget was unprecedented in the metropolitan area.

In five years of TRIM, the school budget has grown slightly in actual dollars. But when inflation is factored in, it has fallen substantially--and by a somewhat greater percentage than enrollment has declined.

Today, in a system grappling with urban problems and mediocre test scores, there are fewer special disciplinary centers, fewer programs for talented and gifted students, and fewer music and language classes.

In the most recent academic year, some schools ran out of paper, labs ran out of supplies, elementary school teachers collected pencils for reuse after writing skills classes, and students used worn-out and sometimes out-of-date texts because there has been little money for replacing books.

Because books were in short supply, some texts were collected after each class and specialized ones, such as the Great Books series, were passed between schools.

School workers spent hours scrounging scraps. They re-used manila folders, cut up used paper for note pads, and were expected to account for any box they used--so it could be used many times again. The system's purchasing director personally rummaged through a closed C and P Telephone store, even pulling out old wood paneling and tablecloths used in a window display.

Judy Hoyer, wife of U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who works for the school system, asked friends who own lumber yards and gravel pits for left-over material for the schools. "There's nothing wrong with that," said Steny Hoyer. "However, if the public thinks you can support a system that way, they're wrong."

And although some teachers were rehired, average class size rose in one year from 30 to 32. (It had been 25 in the mid-70s.) Spending by Prince George's schools, always among the lowest of the state's jurisdictions, is now at the bottom of the list in Maryland when it comes to the number of professional--teachers, principals, guidance counselors--per student. The county has 55.3 professionals per 1,000 students, compared to 68 in Montgomery County and the state average of about 63.

In some instances, the cutbacks prodded parents to put children in private schools. Nettie Reston, a 36-year-old Kettering woman, took one of her children out of public school and is preparing to transfer the other one because of the TRIM cutbacks. "They have over 30 children in each class. It's not the proper atmosphere for children to learn," she said.

To manage with less, some schools have organized fundraising drives, an activity that school officials agree could widen the disparity between less affluent and wealthy areas, where parents have more time and money.

Throughout county government a more common way to find new money has been though fees. Today dozens of service charges are imposed where before none existed. As a proportion of the budget, fees are still insubstantial; but in actual dollars and in percentage increases, the numbers are large.

In the 1979-80 school year, for example, the schools raised $1.8 million in fees; by this past year, school fees totaled $2.8 million.

Among the dozens of charges now in place are $1.20 per student for field trips, levied for the first time last year; $158 for a summer school class, an amount which has doubled since TRIM, making Prince George's summer school the most expensive in the Washington area; $5 for each high school student who participates in extracurricular activities.

Teachers sometimes pick up the tab for the poorer students, but as Supt. Edward J. Feeney pointed out, that can not reach every needy student, nor is such teacher beneficence likely to go on forever.

School board member Bonnie Johns, whose district includes many of those least able to pay, said "groups from my community regularly tell me, 'They call it free public education. How can it be free public education with all these fees?'"

The licensing department has been made nearly self-sustaining through fees charged to developers, builders and others in the business sector. The health department has increased its charges for various inspections and permits, including those for restaurants, swimming pools and septic tanks. The courts are now taking a five percent commission for collecting child support money in cases of disputed divorce where a spouse will only pay with court intervention.

Libraries that in 1979 had no fines or fees now charge for overdue books, video cassettes loans and lost library cards. The libraries raised $400,000 to $500,000 in fines and fees last year, about 3.3 percent of their budget.

The park system's annual fee for use of community centers rose from $1 to $4 and the charge for pools increased to $3 for adults and $2 for children. Other area public pools are either free or less expensive.

County officials say that some of these fees are long needed, but they worry that they impose a hardship on those least able to pay and most in need of services.

"The concern is not so much the really poor, but the near poor who can't get on the list for a free lunch or can't get on the list for a federal program, who are instead just going to be out there hurting," said School Board member Johns.

Worries about TRIM are coming from other quarters as well. Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller, a one-time supporter of TRIM who represents a conservative rural area, said, "At first it was cutting fat, now it's cutting meat and sometimes bone."

Such sentiments are somewhat ironic. Five years ago Miller had a much differenty perception of TRIM. Then, he said, it seemed "like a blessing in disguise."

Tomorrow: The push for TRIM