"It was then that I realized this job was going to be harder than I had anticipated," Masch, 43, said last week in an interview.
Having just crunched the numbers for Rendell's $2.3 billion budget proposal for the fiscal year that starts July 1, Masch now has a lot more than a clue - and so does everybody else.
Little-known to the public, Masch has emerged as one of the Rendell administration's most important inside players, helping devise an unprecedented system for monitoring spending, encouraging innovation and publicly reporting on the budget, warts and all.
"He's created information as a tool in a way that's really allowed the administration to use it very broadly - and that's different in city government," said F. John White, chief executive officer of Public Financial Management, the city's financial consultant.
Going all the way back to Lennox L. Moak, former Mayor Frank Rizzo's finance director in the 1970s, White said, "information was used as a weapon."
"Mike really uses it as a tool, and that's a subtle distinction," White said. "Everything is available now. You can spend an hour reading his Monthly Manager's Report and know a lot about what's going on."
A large, bearded man who can at times be extremely long-winded, Masch has
succeeded in declassifying the deep, dark secrets of the city budget precisely
because he is not a prototypical "numbers guy."
Masch started out as a liberal student activist, went on to community organizing and then spent most of the 1980s as City Council's chief economic analyst, thinking more about social issues, SEPTA, the Convention Center and city tax policy than about how to make numbers add up.
With Masch, there are no short answers - or pat answers, either.
He defended the wisdom of forging ahead with the Convention Center back in the mid-1980s, long before it was fashionable in activist circles to do so.
He still defends the much maligned City Council of the era, arguing that it was far less obstructionist than most of its critics charged (though he concedes that its members often employed a "very unfortunate rhetorical style").
And, as a man with impeccable liberal credentials, he makes no apologies for the Rendell administration's tough stand with city unions, which resulted in massive givebacks of fringe benefits and changes in work rules.
"This is not class warfare here," he says. "Every dollar we save is going to stay in the pockets of poor people in Philadelphia."
And city workers, he said, continue to have excellent health insurance, generous benefits, decent pay and regular employment - which they wouldn't have had if the city had gone belly up.
"You have to balance out the justice," said Masch. "Fairness is not one- dimensional, it's multidimensional. If having city workers work on Flag Day without getting overtime means having the libraries open on Saturday, I think that's a pretty good tradeoff. I guess you could say I've made my peace with it - and I've thought about it a lot."
Mike Masch grew up in a rowhouse on Ruby Street near 54th and Chester, the son of an industrial painter. At Temple University, he agitated for creation of an urban studies major. After graduation, he went to work as managing editor of the Drummer, an alternative weekly newspaper, then as a community organizer with the Northwest Interfaith Movement.
Somewhere along the way, he concluded that people like himself doing "do- gooder" work would inevitably fail unless they conquered their own ''economic illiteracy" - their fear of the numbers.
So Masch took a crash course in calculus and then "threw myself into the belly of the beast" at the University of Pennsylvania, where he got his master's in public policy analysis.
Strangely enough, for one so familiar with Philadelphia, Masch did not encounter Rendell until one Sunday afternoon just before the May 1991 primary, when a friend in East Mount Airy invited Masch over to hear Rendell's stump speech in his basement recreation room.
Masch was stunned by what he heard.
"Rendell had learned things that you don't need to know to run for mayor," Masch recalled. "He had learned things that you only had to know if you're going to be the mayor - and he knew them cold. I had spent 10 years of my life trying to figure out this stuff - and Rendell was dead-on. I was really impressed."
The next time Masch saw Rendell, in January 1992, the mayor offered him the job of budget director. Masch took three weeks to say yes, and only then with a clear agreement. "I never work Friday night and Saturday," Masch said. "I am Jewish and observant, and that was part of my deal."
Explaining that is Masch's way of saying that he often works on Sundays and weeknights, piling up 60 to 70 hours a week.
"For a lot of us in the administration," Masch said, "we do have a kind of gung-ho, Philadelphia Phillies, whatever-it-takes approach."
The payoff has been enormous.
When Masch joined the administration, city government was a polarized world of spenders and cutters. The spenders reported to the managing director. The cutters reported to the finance director. And both sides were used to running to the mayor to arbitrate their disputes.
The end result was an almost total lack of fiscal discipline, reliable information or performance goals.
"In a sense," said David L. Cohen, Rendell's chief of staff, "there were only two speeds that the city went - with the accelerator on the floor, or the brake pedal jammed to the floor."
Working closely with Cohen, Masch's chief contribution has been to bring policy and spending analysts together in a new Office of Budget and Program Evaluation, so that decisions about how much to spend are made in concert with what needs to be done.
The process works like this: On the 10th of every month, departments file budget updates with Masch's office, much as they have always done. Only now the forms they file - designed by Masch - clearly show how much they've spent, how much they were budgeted to spend and what services they have provided, along with explanations for any variances in spending and service delivery.
Masch then publishes all of the information in a monthly report a layman can easily understand.
Four times a year, every department and agency must then appear before the most important grouping in city government, the Initiatives Compliance Committee, to talk about budget problems, explain why they are having trouble meeting their targets, and, if they can make their case, ask for more money.
Cohen runs the meetings - it is understood by all - with the mayor's imprimatur. Masch arrives with his "infamous" blue binders on every entity in city government.
And, together with a half-dozen other key aides, they talk in highly detailed language that rarely has to involve punitive terms for those missing their spending targets.
"The least we can do is give people a very clear sense of what they have to work with," Masch said, "and then give them as much freedom as we can."
White, the city's financial consultant and a longtime adviser to Rendell, recalled last week how impressed he was when he met Masch during the transition two years ago.
"He knew enough about what was going on, and yet was committed enough to doing things differently," White said. "One of the things the mayor had to do was create some sort of policy analysis capability in the government,
because it just didn't exist. I said to Ed and David, 'You've got to find a place for him.' "
Masch, the analyst, never envisioned himself in what had always been defined as a technician's role. But he now seems pleased with the fit, especially since the administration has redefined his role to make it more closely resemble that of the state budget secretary.
"I love Philadelphia," Masch said. "I loved going to the World Series and rooting for the Phillies and going to the Mummers Parade and going shopping on South Street with my kids."
"Everybody has a contribution to make," he said. "We need really good people in Harrisburg and really good people in Washington and really good people running our cities. Hopefully, I'm in that latter category."