Tax protesters are fond of calling for spending cuts, for making-do, and for "taking the fat out" of government. There is nothing wrong with that, yet budget austerity can only be carried so far before muscle - not fat - starts being lost.

A case in point is the Salt Lake City Police Department, which is losing too many of its veteran officers. They are opting for early retirement because the economic and morale outlook is gloomy.Their departure not only means that a great deal of experience and know-how is walking out the door, but it also means that those left behind will have a much harder time doing their jobs.

Up to 25 lawmen have retired or have said they will retire this year - 21/2-times as many as in 1987. Each takes 20 to 30 years experience with him. And the year is not yet half over.

In addition, the ranks will be depleted to 290 officers, the lowest number in many, many years. Three years ago, the force numbered 330 and many at the time thought that was too few.

Why are they leaving? The reasons are probably as varied as the people, but pay - or more specifically, the lack of pay raises - seems to be a significant problem, at least according to some of the retirees, although some officials deny that is the case. The workload also is cited as a factor - a direct consequence of smaller numbers due to a tight budget.

Police protection is one of those basic government services that can't simply be slashed because a community has budget problems. It's not that law enforcement abruptly disappears: it simply gets harder and harder to deliver as the ranks dwindle.

Transfers can be made, schedules shuffled, officers can work without lunch hours or breaks, and spend less time on each case. As a result, it doesn't seem like the city is going without sufficient police protection. Yet the strain on the quality of work eventually will take its toll.

For many officers, all of this is discouraging. Added to the danger, the responsibility, and the emotional pressures that accompany police work, it becomes too much for some veteran officers - and they leave sooner than they might have done otherwise.

There is no evidence that Salt Lake City's police protection is in danger of collapse. But clearly, the "thin blue line," standing between society and the criminals - as an author once described it - is getting thinner, both in numbers and experience.