Forget these five other guys running for mayor. Let's pretend for a moment that

you

decide to run.

In throwing your hat into the ring, you avoid the expansionist "We'll Solve Every Problem" platforms of the other candidates. Instead, you go for frugality.

Your promise is to run city government as efficiently and cheaply as possible. No new programs. No new taxes. Just a no-frills government that does the basics at the lowest cost possible.

With your catchy slogan, "A Penny Pinched Is a Penny Saved," you sweep past the other chumps and take the oath of office in January 2008.

Congratulations, Mr. Mayor.

Your first order of business is to call in your department heads to lay down the law.

First, you impose a freeze on hiring. The city workforce of 23,000 will remain at that number. The departments can hire to replace people who quit or retire, but nothing beyond that.

Second, you give them orders to keep spending below the rate of inflation. You set a target of a 2 percent increase in overall city spending each year.

From your predecessor, John Street, you inherited a $3.9 billion city budget. You plan to keep the increase for the next budget year to $78 million or less.

"A penny pinched is a penny saved," you tell your department heads.

Next thing you know, your budget director comes in whining about your mandates. He says that even with a payroll freeze and even by strictly limiting spending, you are going to need to increase the budget by more than 2 percent a year.

You ask: "Why?"

He explains: "Because even with your austerity measures, certain large expenses are going to rise 7 to 10 percent a year. You are obligated to pay them. You must come up with the money."

You bark: "That's ridiculous! Who says I can't cut where I want by how much I want? What are these costs?"

He says: "Pension and health and welfare costs for city employees. They are going up at 7 to 10 percent a year. And we must pay them."

You wonder: "Is there an alternative?"

The budget guy replies: "You really have only two options. You can reduce the budget elsewhere to raise the money needed to pay for these benefits, or you can negotiate new terms and conditions for these benefits with the city employee unions to reduce the cost. It's your choice."

"Some choice," you say.

Alas, this is exactly the choice faced by the next mayor, whether it be you or me or that fellow behind the tree.

In fact, it was the same choice John Street faced when he was elected mayor in 1999. What did he do? He picked Option No. 1.

The Street administration never made a serious attempt to control pension or health costs. It just paid the bills as they came due.

As a result, costs have increased exponentially. In 2001, in the first Street budget, 13 cents of every dollar in the city budget went to pay employee benefits. Today, it is 21 cents out of every dollar.

In 2001, the city shelled out $509 million for benefits. This year, it will total $951 million.

Looking ahead, even by optimistic projections, these costs will continue to rise 6 to 8 percent a year and soon top $1 billion.

How did Street pay for these benefits? Mostly by taking money from other areas of government. Except for the criminal justice sector, most areas of city government paid for by city taxes have shrunk in recent years.

"There's been a slow shrinking of the rest of the budget," explained Rob Dubow, director of the state agency that monitors city spending. "You are really shifting your money away from what people can see to employee benefit costs."

When it comes to budget making, Dubow knows whereof he speaks.

He was John Street's budget director for several years. He saw first hand how the city had to trim elsewhere to meet the increased needs of the pension and health and welfare funds.

The agency Dubow now heads is called the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority (PICA) and it has been warning for a while that something must be done to curb these costs, lest they eat the rest of city government.

PICA has two reports that detail the problem that you can read by going to its Web site: http://www.picapa.org.

The candidates for mayor have been making noises about doing something about these costs.

The time to do it will be within the first six months of their first term, when the contracts of all the city employee unions are due to expire. If they don't get changes at the bargaining table, these costs are going to be locked in for the length of the union contracts.

Listen carefully during this campaign to what the candidates are saying about this problem and know this: It is real. It has to be faced in a serious way.

If we don't do something soon, meeting the cost of city employee benefits is going to eat the rest of city government.

Contact Tom Ferrick at 215-854-2787 or tferrick@phillynews.com.