While Salt Lake City's efforts to hold down municipal costs and taxes are understandable and commendable, it is a mistake to pay police so poorly that those responsible for public safety are nearly always disgruntled and unhappy. Given the dangerous nature of their jobs, police surely ought to be among the better paid of all city employees.

Once again, as they have been so often in recent years, city officials and the police union are deadlocked - at least temporarily - over wages, including starting salaries, cost-of-living increases and advancements in grade.The police union is calling for mediation in the contract talks. That is an option, but it may be a little premature. Further attempts to resolve differences should be made.

The union says some new Salt Lake police officers with families earn so little in starting salaries that they could be eligible for food stamps and other government programs. That probably doesn't apply too often, since a new officer would have to have five children to go along with the starting salary in order to get food stamps.

Yet there is no denying that a new police officer in Salt Lake City - at $1,529 per month - makes less than his counterparts in Salt Lake County or 12 other Utah cities and considerably less than police in such communities as Tacoma, Wash., or Bakersfield, Calif.

This position is particularly galling to Salt Lake police since they were ranked near the top of the Utah scale in 1985 but have declined steadily since then, going without any raises some years. A two-year contract signed in 1989 is due to expire at the end of June.

The difference in what the city is offering and what union spokesmen say police want amounts to a total of about $400,000 - money that Mayor Palmer DePaulis says the city simply does not have. A recent budget proposed by the mayor was a bare bones, hold-the-line document with hardly any increases in spending and facing some losses in revenue.

That fiscal problem is understandable, but failing to pay the city's 290 police officers an adequate wage has other costs. First, it makes it difficult to attract qualified people. Second, experienced officers are more likely to take their skills elsewhere, especially since nearby communities are paying lawmen more money. Third, most police are reduced to moonlighting at second and even third jobs to make ends meet, a practice that can reduce effectiveness, cause fatigue on the job and add more stress to officers already engaged in dangerous and stressful work.

Union officials say that Salt Lake police have to deal with more violent crime than any other such agency in the state.

All of these factors mean that Salt Lake taxpayers are not getting the most efficient use of the dollars already being spent on law enforcement. Better wages for police could be a wise investment for the city.