Fairfax County voters, apparently concerned by the region's slumping economy and the county's tax and spending policies, were defeating most of seven bond referendums in early returns last night, ending a decade-long tradition of approving debt financing for public facilities.

The only bond referendum appearently headed for clear victory was the $169.3 million school bond, which had 57 percent approval with about 60 percent of the county's precints reporting. An $80 million bond for transportation projects, considered one of the county's top priorites, was holding a slim margin 51 percent to 49 percent. If defeated, it would be the first transportation bond rejected by Fairfax voters.

In other elections, Prince William voters were favoring 54 percent to 46 percent a $43 million bond to build a four-lane east-west road parallel to Davis Ford Road, with about 85 percent of the votes counted.

In Arlington County, board member Mary Margaret Whipple, a Democrat, appeared headed for a third four-year term with 50 percent of the vote tallied. She had 61 percent of the vote compared with 39 percent for independent A.M. "Monte" Davis.

Arlington voters appeared to be the only ones in Northern Virginia who were going to pass bond referendums without a fight. Five bonds, for schools, a court and police facility, roads, parks and a fire station, were all passing handily.

With 104 of Fairfax County's 171 precints reporting, Republican Carl R. Peed had garnered 55 percent of the vote in the race for sheriff, while Democrat Richard Singleton had 40 percent and independent Clarence A. Robinson Sr. had 3 percent. They were vying to fill out the remaining year of M. Wayne Huggins's four-year term. Peed had been acting sheriff since Huggins resigned in February to become director of the National Institute of Corrections.

Fairfax County Supervisor Thomas M. Davis III (R-Mason) called the apparent defeat of four Fairfax bonds for the first time in a decade "a negative review" of county tax and spending policies, saying voters "spoke very loud and clear on this one, and they are saying government is going to have to do more with less."

"We were tempting Providence in going with this generous an offering," he said. "When the economy is contracting, it's not a time to run-up debt and spending."

Locally, there were 14 bond referendums totaling almost $450 million in Fairfax, Arlington, Prince William and Loudoun counties. Although Northern Virginians have favored bond financing in recent years -- the last time one lost in Fairfax was 1980, and Prince William voters approved a road bond for the first time ever in 1988 -- officials this election season were less optimistic, citing voter concern about pocketbook issues.

In Loudoun, Republican H. Roger Zurn Jr. handily defeated Democrat Howard P. Smith in a special election for the Sterling District seat on the County Board of Supervisors.

Also in Loudoun, voters approved a measure to elect an at-large chairman of the board starting next November; supervisors now select the chairman from among themselves. They also favored parimutuel betting and approved an $11 million landfill bond.

But it was the local bond referendums that captured the attention of local officials, who were looking to the results for signs of voter discontent leading up to major board and legislative elections next year.

Specifically, officials said they were concerned that a general downturn in the national, state and regional economy could dampen voter enthusiasm for allowing local governments to finance public improvements through debt.

With consumer spending down and the real estate market in a stall, tax revenue is expected to slump and governments are projecting deficits. The state of Virginia expects a $1.4 billion revenue shortfall, while locally, Fairfax projects a $100 million budget deficit in the year beginning in July, Loudoun expects about a $30 million shortfall and Prince William anticipates a $17 million deficit, officials said.

In Fairfax especially, residents have complained angrily about high taxes and what they see as excessive government spending.

"I think there's just too much discretionary spending going on that's having an adverse effect in our tax base," said Wally Scherer, a 14-year resident of Vienna who said he voted for the $169.3 million school bond in Fairfax and rejected six other bond questions.