The Immigration and Naturalization Service's finances are in such poor shape that they will require "more urgent and decisive actions" than the agency's other longstanding management problems, the General Accounting Office has found.

The GAO findings, delivered to the agency in a 58-page draft report, supplemented a longer and equally critical report in which the GAO warned that the INS's overall administration is weak and beset by a number of serious problems.

In the latest report, the GAO said that despite earlier warnings, the Justice Department agency has yet to resolve a number of serious financial issues that threaten the loss of "millions of dollars in revenue." Financial records at the INS, which runs the nation's immigration programs and guards its borders, were said to be in such disarray that officials were uncertain how much money the agency had on hand on any day.

"INS does not have fiscal accountability over its resources," the report said. "Its outmoded accounting system, weak internal controls and lack of management emphasis on financial management have contributed to this situation."

Duke Austin, a spokesman for INS Commissioner Gene McNary, said yesterday that McNary had made immediate changes in some of the agency's financial operations shortly after he took charge of the INS in October 1989. "He recognized that he who has control of the purse strings has control," said Austin.

Some operations are "much better off, although we still have got a ways to go," Austin said. "It is not always within our control to know how much money we have."

As in the earlier report, the GAO laid much of the blame for the INS's troubles on its Washington headquarters, saying lax administration and a willingness to let regional commissioners dictate fiscal policies locally had contributed to the financial problems. It said Attorney General Dick Thornburgh should direct McNary to name an associate commissioner for financial management to run the agency's finances and urged Thornburgh to name a panel of financial experts to help revamp the agency's finances.

Thornburgh, who has long been critical of the INS, took similar action earlier this month, naming a management review committee after receiving the initial GAO report on the agency.

The new report said the INS lost more than $460,000 in fiscal 1989, the latest year for which records were available, from bad checks. It also said that the INS lost an unknown amount of money, perhaps in the "tens of millions of dollars," from failing to collect the bonds posted by suspected illegal aliens who fail to make court appearances.

A check of the INS's Western Regional Office in Laguna Niguel, Calif., discovered $4.1 million in unprocessed cash bonds, some of which dated to 1985, which should have been transferred to the Treasury Department, the report said. Most INS offices do not know the total amount of breached bonds in their jurisdiction and do not act promptly when aliens fail to appear in court, the GAO said.

The report quoted a memorandum from an INS lawyer attempting to collect $6 million in bond money from an insurance firm as citing five reasons why the government might be unable to collect all the bail it was due. The reasons were "suspect" INS data, "antiquated" recordkeeping, "defective" files on the aliens, inaccurate or late notification of the court hearing, and a "mismanaged" bonding program.

The GAO said it warned the INS of its debt collection problems four years ago and the agency had made "limited progress in correcting them.

"INS leadership has not made correction of these problems a priority," the GAO said, noting that district managers were not held accountable for collecting bad debts.

Few INS managers appeared worried about the agency's debts because the money went into a general Treasury fund and not to the INS, the report said. "This attitude has to change if INS is to resolve this longstanding problem," it said.

The report did not single out any individuals for blame. It did note that the agency's overall budget had more than tripled in the past decade, rising from about $349 million to more than $1 billion. Much of that increase came from new user fees, which the agency now charges individuals using its services.

However, it said one of the INS's largest revenue sources, the $5-a-head fee charged individuals who arrive in the United States, illustrates the fiscal problems confronting the agency. The INS has never checked on whether airlines, which collect the fees, are turning in the proper amounts of money to the government. Instead, the INS relies on the "good-faith effort" of the carriers and depends on the work of a single person to estimate how much money the airlines are paying.

The fees are used to pay for an inspection program, but the GAO said the INS appears uncertain what the program costs. It told Congress that it cost $59 million to administer the program in fiscal 1987 while the GAO said INS's internal figures placed the cost at $21 million.

"Because of inadequate financial data produced by the system, we were unable to determine if either amount was correct," the GAO said.