issue in the public's mind, politicians are sure to demand more police on the streets.

As the 2007 mayoral primary heats up, it's like a high-stakes poker game with each candidate bidding up the number of cops he'll hire .

But the candidates are vague about how to fit the enormous cost of more police into a city budget facing profound challenges.

Bottom line: By the end of June, the Police Department will have more than 6,600 officers. Adding 500 more would cost $115 million to $130 million over five years, according to the Street administration and another budget analyst.

Former City Councilman Michael Nutter wants to hire 500 cops in three years. State Rep. Dwight Evans wants 500 in four years. Businessman Tom Knox is calling for 1,000 more in five years.

And while Congressmen Chaka Fattah and Bob Brady, aren't saying precisely how many more cops they would hire, they certainly want more.

Brady is pledging to spend $300 million to hire a mix of 1,000 cops, probation officers and truancy officers, although he didn't specify how many of each.

Both men say they want their new police commissioner, not the next mayor, to decide how big the police force should be.

The Fattah campaign issued a statement saying that beefing up the Police Department "should not be a political decision. A Fattah administration will fund the appropriate number of officers that is deemed necessary by the police commissioner."

Meanwhile, the Street administration is in the midst of hiring 200 officers, paid for in part by City Council and the Rendell administration.

But even this money isn't enough. According to the city budget office, it costs about $12.8 million per year in pay, benefits and equipment for 200 new officers. Street's deal with Council provided just $5 million and the state funding is $4.9 million for each of three years.

Though he prefers the use of targeted overtime rather than a mass buildup of cops, Street said the city can hire more officers.

" . . . but the issue is how do you pay for it," he said. "Either you have to raise taxes or you'll have to significantly shift your budget priorities."

Rob Dubow, executive director of the Pennsylvania Intergovernmental Cooperation Authority, the state fiscal watchdog over city finances, said the five-year cost of 500 officers could reach $130 million.

Dubow notes that Street and Council have battled in recent years over budget cuts of less than $20 million, what amounted to "wiggle room" in the city budget.

Accommodating the biggest police buildup since the mid-1990s (when Mayor Ed Rendell added more than 600 officers thanks to a massive infusion of federal cash) will be a daunting task, Dubow says.

"Obviously, you'd have to offset these [police] costs and do some things that are unpopular," he said. "Most likely cuts."

But what about simply relying on added tax revenues? Dubow said city tax revenues could well grow by $130 million or more in the next five years. The problem is that health care, pension, prison and debt-service costs are likely to grow much faster, eating up that increased revenue.

The administration has yet to present its 2008 budget, but a preliminary look by Street's budget office predicts that the 2006 surplus of $254 million will dwindle to just $28 million by 2012 - and that assumes that most city departments take a 2.5 percent cut in 2008.

For Street, a 500-officer buildup in four years would simply be too disruptive of other city services.

"I don't know how you could ever fund them," he said. "You'd have to eliminate a tax-reduction program and a huge amount of existing services. A new mayor and City Council might decide to do it, but I don't think they could do it responsibly and still do all the other things that we do in government."

Fattah has said he wants to increase the number of officers in the homicide division and in illegal-gun investigations. He's offered no specific numbers nor has he said anything about how he would pay for his increase.

"We'll release a financing plan at the end of February," said Fattah spokesman Solomon Jones.

The other candidates offer varying mixes of plans to squeeze dollars out of other departments by becoming more efficient, getting more money from state and federal sources, and planning on growth in city tax revenue, including the the city's share of revenue from casino gambling.

Nutter puts a $130 million, five-year price tag on his three-year buildup of 500 cops. He says the Street administration has habitually underestimated its future tax-revenue growth. And he plans to seek state and federal funding with a heightened level of urgency.

"When the mayor doesn't want to do something, the city is close to bankruptcy, but when he has a pet project, there's no money problems," Nutter said. "We're in a crisis and all he wants to do is sit around talking about what we can't do. If his next budget doesn't include more police to protect the people, then it's not worth the paper it's written on."

Evans said that hiring more cops "would be my number one priority to move as fast as I can."

One area where Evans expects to find money for hiring cops is by cutting the mayor's office budget, which is about $5 million.

Evans attacked Street's use of more than $100 million for overtime in his Operation Safer Streets program.

He, too, cited more state and federal money, growth in city tax revenue, and savings from increased efficiency as ways to pay for more cops.

Noting that as state House Appropriations Committee chairman, he has managed a $26 billion state budget, Evans said, "Look, everything [in the city budget] will be on the table."

Susan Madrak, the Knox campaign spokeswoman, said Knox will shift funds to police from the job attrition that occurs in other parts of the government. Knox would also seek state and federal dollars to hire more cops.

Knox proposes increased use of technology and "streamlining" to achieve savings that can be reallocated to the police, she said.

Brady spokeswoman Andi Pringle says Brady wants to raise money from state and federal sources.

"It's all in the works," she said.

Asked whether Brady would cut jobs elsewhere in city government or raise taxes, she said, "I can't say anything about that." *