IN A STROKE of stealth and misguided policy, the city government has succeeded in alarming and infuriating officials of more than 400 local nonprofit groups in Greater Washington. Not only did city hall try a sneaky end run in an effort to effect a dreadfully strange set of tax rules; it couldn't even explain the municipal intent once the proposals were discovered. In fact, if there is the slightest merit to this bizarre bit of bureaucratic prestidigitation, the city should retract its current proposals entirely and start over.

It all began when the city's department of finance and revenue published some rules changes in the D.C. Register, without warning and without anything resembling contact with the groups that would be affected most. The gist of the proposals -- and a gist is all you can get from this gobbledygook -- is that tax exemptions for all sorts of nonprofit organizations would be eliminated. Matthew Watson, a lawyer representing local nonprofit groups, interprets the language as revoking the tax-exempt status "for every private school, every hospital, many social service providers, group homes, halfway houses and potentially some churches."

While Mr. Watson, who used to be D.C. auditor, doesn't believe this was the intent, he thinks the city "went hog wild and went overboard." City officials respond that they merely sought to "clarify what's already in the statute." Really? Under one of these proposals, hospitals, private and parochial schools and universities would be required to offer their services "gratuitously" or "at a nominal charge" to maintain tax-exempt status.

If you buy that one, how about another proposal that in effect would set minimum academic standards for schools and universities to qualify for a tax exempion? Or one that would take away the exemption for group homes and other nonprofit groups that assist transient clientele or that receive a large portion of their operating funds from the D.C. government? There's even a stipulation about qualifying libraries having to be open 48 hours a week, which is more than their city-operated counterparts can claim.

Enough. So far, city officials are saying they will consider extending the time for public comment -- which is awfully kind of them since there was no provision for such comment before these proposals were dropped into the register. This won't do. Public hearings are essential and -- if the city is serious about "clarifications" -- someone with a knowledge of plain old understandable English must be put on the case.

But for now, neither the language of the proposals nor their apparent intent merits public acceptance.